Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

The Open: McIlroy ready to step up to next level

Rory McIlroy addresses the media during practice for the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course, St Andrews on July 13, 2010
Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland hits a shot during practice for the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course, St Andrews on July 13, 2010
Tiger Woods addresses the media prior to the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course, St Andrews on July 13, 2010

Rory McIlroy is convinced there is no time like the present - even though he would be the youngest Open champion since 1893 if he won at St Andrews on Sunday.

And the bookmakers agree. Even though McIlroy has missed the cut in the first two majors of the season they make him the man most likely to stop Tiger Woods winning a third successive title at the Home of Golf.

“It just feels like it's the right time to go out and play well and win one of these big events,” said the 21-year-old world number nine.

“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 again.”

Three years ago, just a week into his professional career, he finished third in the Dunhill Links Championship and last October he came second.

Now he arrives confident in his ability to do what his fellow Ulsterman and close friend Graeme McDowell did at the US Open a month ago.

Reminded that he has never shot worse than 69 on the Old Course, McIlroy knows he might not be able to continue that record.

“One of the things I noticed when I played here Friday and Saturday was how much different the course plays in the summer rather than when we play the Dunhill Links in October.

“The greens are a lot firmer, the fairways are a lot firmer, the ball can sort of run out a bit more — and there's a few more bunkers off the fairway that come into play.

“The strategy that you would use in the Dunhill wouldn't really work this week, so I've had to sort of change a few clubs off tees and everything and probably try to adopt a more conservative approach just to avoid all the bunkers out there that are waiting to swallow your ball up.

“I suppose playing well here in the past brings a little bit of added pressure knowing that I'm expecting myself to play well and I'm sure a lot of people are expecting me to play well.

“But I have a lot of great memories from this place and hopefully those can stand by me for the week.

“I tried to get a couple of early practice rounds in last week so that I wasn't in any mad rush to get here.

“You can get swallowed up with the whole occasion and I'm just trying to stay as low profile as possible — if that's going to be possible.”

McIlroy is convinced that McDowell's victory improves his chances.

He added: “Just because I've played so much golf with him. Just to see him win that gave me a lot of confidence to know winning a major wasn't as far away as I thought it was.

“I had viewed winning majors as this sort of higher level and it just made me realise that it wasn't.

You just need to play well in the right week and a few things go your way.”

With the bookies making him second favourite behind Tiger Woods, there’s no way the talented Ulsterman is going to be able to keep a low profile this week.

But his record at the Open — apart from his debut at Carnoustie when he won the silver medal — is merely ordinary.

He failed to qualify for Royal Birkdale two years ago and came in 47th at Turnberry last year.

After missing the cut at both the Masters in april and the US Open last month, he badly wants to make amends.

But he’s taking a relaxed approach to the week’s work ahead, wisely choosing to fit in a couple of practice rounds at the Old Course last week away from the crowds instead of playing the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond.

“I did everything I needed to,” he said.

“I got my lines off tees and course strategy sorted out.

“Back home I’ve been doing plenty of practice with Michael Bannon, especially on my wedge play because that’s really important around St Andrews.”

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