When he was a young lad of just 16, Rory McIlroy set the course record at Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush with a 61. Put aside the fact that a 16-year-old shot a 61 — this is Rory McIlroy we’re talking about here — and focus on the fact that McIlroy is returning to that same course more than a decade later. It’s a changed course, a changed McIlroy, but the same challenge: to be better than anyone could possibly expect. Only this time, the world’s going to be watching.
“Look, I'm from Northern Ireland and I'm playing at home, but I don't see myself as that center of attention,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “I'm here to enjoy myself. Hopefully it doesn't take another 68 years for the tournament to come back here.”
Rory’s history at Portrush
We’ll get to that “center of attention” line in a bit. First, though, some history. McIlroy, who grew up about an hour away in Holywood, a Belfast suburb, first laid eyes on Royal Portrush when he’d tag along while his father would play the course. Wee Rory, then just seven or eight years old, was confined to goofing around on the chipping green … until one momentous afternoon:
“My dad brought me to Portrush for my 10th birthday to play, which was my birthday present,” he said. “Actually met Darren Clarke that day for the first time, which was really cool.”
Six years after that, McIlroy would post that 61. And five years after that, he would win his first major, the 2011 U.S. Open, a victory that would vault him to worldwide stardom. Combined with Graeme McDowell’s 2010 U.S. Open win and Clarke’s Open Championship win just weeks after McIlroy’s, that gave Northern Ireland three major champions in the space of a year — not a bad pedigree for a country with just 1.5 million residents. The three parlayed their fame and cachet into a campaign to bring the Open Championship to Royal Portrush, and — long story short — here we are.
Top of the world, top of his game
So now, back on a course from his childhood, McIlroy’s playing with that strange dissociative feeling you used to get when your college friends would meet your high school friends. “It's sort of surreal that it's here,” he said. “Even driving in [Tuesday], when you're coming in on the road and you look to the right and you've got the second tee … I don't know who was teeing off, maybe Tony Finau and someone else, sort of strange to see them here.”
That’s why McIlroy’s pronouncement that he won’t be the “center of attention” is just deliberate misdirection. He’s the betting favorite, his current odds at roughly 17-2. He’ll also have an entire nation trailing in his wake up and down the hills and dales of Royal Portrush.
McIlroy hasn’t won a major since 2014, so it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that he’s still one of the absolute best in the world. He’s got two wins already this season — the Players Championship and the RBC Canadian Open — along with top-10 finishes at the last two majors. He ranks first in the world in strokes gained, second in driving distance, second in scoring average, second in official money ... he’s doing just fine.
“I think it's probably the most consistent period of golf I've ever played,” he said. “I use strokes gained numbers a lot in terms of what am I doing well in and what needs improvement, what am I going to go practice this week to get ready for next week or whatever it may be.”
McIlroy currently sits at 2.711 shots gained per round, and to hear him tell it, that’s a pretty fine place to be. “If you're consistently around two and a half strokes gained, that's a really nice place to live. You're going to have a nice life if you're two and a half strokes gained every time. I'm sort of pushing up towards the three mark at this point this year. And I know if I keep doing that, then the wins will come and everything else sort of just falls into place.”
It’s The Open, not the Ryder Cup
One trap McIlroy hopes to avoid: treating this like a Ryder Cup. With Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland capturing the first three majors of the year, Americans are on the verge of sweeping all four majors for the first time in nearly four decades. But to McIlroy, getting jingoistic would be a mistake, regardless of how loud the crowd cheers for the Euros.
“I don't think this is anything like a Ryder Cup,” he said. “You're playing for yourself. It's not the same. I wouldn't want to turn this into a Ryder Cup mindset because I think that's hard to sustain for four days.” McIlroy, of course, was at the center of one of the great Ryder Cup duels of all time — a mano a mano singles match with Patrick Reed back in 2016 where both traded haymakers for the first half of the round ... and then were gassed for the rest of it.
”Again, I'm just treating this like any other Open Championship,” McIlroy said. “I've played well here for the last few years. I've played well on this golf course. So I've just got to go out and hit the shots and stay in the present. If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, hopefully by Sunday night that will be good enough.”
We’ll see soon enough. McIlroy tees off at 5:09 a.m. Thursday morning alongside Woodland and Paul Casey. You’ll be able to hear the cheers from the other side of the Atlantic.
UPDATE: The cheers ended quickly, as McIlroy carded a quadruple-bogey 8 at the very first hole. Hell of a kicker to this story, huh?
More from Yahoo Sports: