British bookies have made Rory McIlroy second favorite behind Tiger Woods to win the Open this week and the young Irishman is not one to disagree with them.
“I don’t think you should be,” he replied when asked if he had any qualms about talking himself up. “I’ve played well here in the past and if I don’t let the occasion get the better of me, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to do so again.”
Just how comfortable the 21-year-old Ulsterman from the town of Hollywood outside Belfast feels on the Old Course can be illustrated by the fact that he has never scored worse than 69 in all the times he has played there.
Much of the credit for that is down to his golfing upbringing on the famous Ulster links courses of Portrush and County Down, classic seaside layouts he merits as “probably in the top 10 or 15 in the world right at our doorstep.”
It was at the 2007 Open at nearby Carnoustie that McIlroy first came to the attention of the wider golfing public when, as an 18-year-old amateur, he shot a three-under par 68 in the first round to share third.
He promptly turned professional and his first top-level win came in last year’s Dubai Desert Classic as he shot into the world top 20.
This year it has been a bit of a mixed bag as he won his first event on the USPGA Tour and broke into the world top 10, but he has struggled in the majors, missing the cut at both The Masters and the US Open.
At St Andrews, he is optimistic he can put that behind him, given that it is a very different layout to both Augusta and Pebble Beach and more suited to his aggressive style of play.
“This course is a little different. There’s a bit more margin for error, especially around the greens and off the tee, as well, because the rough isn’t quite as penal this week as it has been in the past,” he said. “I mean, if you look at the winners that have played here before, John Daly in ’95, Tiger the last couple of times, they’re guys that are renowned for hitting it long and being quite aggressive. Hopefully, that will play into my hands.”
McIlroy has another reason to feel confident going into his first Open at St Andrews — the breakthrough win for compatriot and close friend Graeme McDowell at last month’s US Open.
The two are regular playing partners and the older McDowell has become something like a big brother to McIlroy.
Seeing McDowell bag his first major, McIlroy said, was an inspiration.
“It gave me a lot of confidence just to know winning a major wasn’t as far away as I thought it was,” he said. “I had sort of viewed winning majors as this sort of higher level and it sort of just made me realise that it wasn’t.”
“You just needed to play well in the right week and a few things go your way. It gave me a lot of confidence,” he said.
Whether that confidence can translate into major success will depend to a large extent on whether McIlroy can go the full distance.
In his two previous Opens at Carnoustie and last year at Turnberry, he has started well, but on both occasions, he then faded.
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