The 32-year-old begins his quest for a second Irish Open this week before heading to Scotland and then to The Open Championship
Rory McIlroy Relishing Irish Open Homecoming
There’s no place like home. At least that’s what Rory McIlroy will be hoping as he makes his long-awaited return to the Emerald Isle to play in the Irish Open for the first time since 2018.
The man from Hollywood is a fan favourite wherever he goes, but having shifted his life over to Florida, he is relishing the prospect of playing in front of a home gallery again at the event he first played as a scruffy-haired 16-year-old back in 2005.
“It’s felt like three years,” McIlroy said. “A lot has happened since.
“The Irish Open has been a big part of my career. I first played this event as an amateur in 2005.
“I went to watch Irish Opens as a kid and I think as well, 2016 with the involvement with the foundation at that point, and raising so much money and then obviously winning and having that prize money go to charity, it meant a lot.
“I played Ballyliffin obviously in 2018. Made the decision not to play in 2019 because I felt like that was the best preparation for The Open at Portrush, and then obviously last year with the pandemic and everything.
“Things have started to open back up again, so it is nice to be back. I haven’t been back here for nearly a couple years, and that’s the longest time I’ve spent away for a while.
“It would be great if more fans were allowed in, but I understand that’s not quite possible at this time in this country. But it’s at least nice that we are playing in front of somebody.”
Although yet to play competitively on the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout, the 32-year-old has fond memories of Mount Juliet having journeyed south to watch his idol Tiger Woods in action in 2002 and 2004 when the venue hosted the WGC American Express Championship.
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And despite admitting the course should suit his game, he is well aware he will be under pressure to perform and add a second Irish Open title to his impressive list of achievements.
“There’s always going to be a bit of added pressure when you come back and play an Irish Open, especially obviously being from here, but also being the favourite for the tournament and all that sort of stuff. So there’s always those sorts of pressures.
“But I feel like as long as I just stick to my game plan and my own expectations and try to get the most out of myself, then that’s all I can do.
“I feel like the Irish Open that I won at The K Club, it’s a pretty similar set up to what it is here. Might be a little firmer this week because of the weather. But decent parkland courses, it’s something familiar to me.
“It’s what I’ve been playing for the last couple years. Yeah, I feel good about my game.”
Rewind a few months and the outlook wasn’t quite so bright. Three missed cuts in six starts after being lured into a needless quest for distance had some wondering if perhaps the Northern Irishman was already past his best at just 32.
But things change quickly and a timely hook-up with veteran coach Pete Cowen seems to have re-energised McIlroy, who returned to the winner’s circle at the Wells Fargo Championship in May and went close in his last start at the US Open.
In fact, was it not for a careless three-putt on the back-nine at Torrey Pines, we could be talking about the prospects of a five-time major winner. Ifs and buts mean very little when playing a sport as ruthless as golf, but nevertheless, there were plenty of encouraging signs to bring with him across the Atlantic.
“I was very encouraged walking away from Torrey Pines, to have a share of the lead on the final day through a few holes, I gave myself a good chance,” he added.
“Looking back, the one thing that I kicked myself about, it wasn’t — like the double on 12, you’re going to get some bad breaks and I got a bad break but it was the three-putt on 11 that stopped the momentum.
“I made a really good putt for par on 10 and then probably hit my best shot of the day into 11. Great 5-iron into the middle of the green. And then, you know, that three-putt was just sort of — it was pretty sloppy, and that killed the momentum to go on from there.
“But I thought the week was a real positive on the whole and I’m looking forward to these next three weeks.”
With certain travel restrictions still in place and stricter Covid-19 protocols than players have been used to on the PGA Tour, the Northern Irishman has rejigged his schedule to include next week’s Scottish Open as part of a three-week run that concludes at The Open Championship.
Although a late change, could it be a blessing in disguise for the Northern Irishman as he looks to end a major drought that stretches back to August 2014?
“It is nice to get a tournament on a links course before going into Sandwich. So if anything, it’s probably all worked out for the best,” he admitted.
“I didn’t do much last week in terms of practise, knowing I’m away from my family five of the next six weeks. So I tried to spend as much time with them as I could, so I only hit balls one day.
“So this will be a nice week to get myself back into it and put the head down, practise. Great facilities here to sort of do what I need to do and get some good work done and feel ready to go, not just for this tournament but for the next few weeks coming up.”