Golf’s oldest major was last staged at the County Antrim venue in 1951 and, on the eve of the tournament, McIlroy spoke about the huge significance for his home country.
“I think it just means that people have moved on. It’s a different time,” said the four-time major winner, who hails from Holywood, near Belfast. “It’s a very prosperous place. I’m very fortunate that I grew up just outside Belfast and I never saw anything [the Troubles]. I was oblivious to it.
“I remember I watched a movie a couple of years ago, it was called ’71. It’s about a British soldier that gets stationed at the Palace Barracks in Holywood, which is literally 500 yards from where I grew up and it basically follows him on the night of the Troubles and all that. And I remember asking my mum and dad, is this actually what happened?
“It’s amazing to think 40 years on it’s such a great place, no one cares who they are, where they’re from, what background they’re from, but you can have a great life and it doesn’t matter what side of the street you come from.
“To be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now. We’re so far past that. And that’s a wonderful thing.”
The sell-out event will be watched by a crowd of 237,750 – the highest attendance for the major outside St Andrews.
“I think no matter what happens this week, if I win or whoever else wins, having The Open back in this country is a massive thing for golf. And I think as well it will be a massive thing for the country,” added McIlroy.
“Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. We all know that this country sometimes needs that. This has the ability to do that. The biggest impact this tournament has outside of sport, outside of everything else, is the fact that people are coming here to enjoy it and have a good time and sort of forget everything else that sort of goes on.”
As a reminder that some traditions remain deeply rooted in this part of the world, a three-hour “celebration of marching bands” is scheduled to take place in Portrush on Saturday.
Asked about the loyalist event, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said: “As guests here, we are very conscious that we want to be part of the community. But we will be gone in a couple of weeks. And so we want to live with the community. And every year since I’ve been here, there’s always things on around the golf. And that’s wonderful. And the community carries on. Our job is to put on The Open.”