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Irish Open: Rory McIlroy is happy to be the top dog now

By Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy rates his early season form as ‘three out of 10' — but now he's ready to justify his ranking as ‘3’ Irish Open favourite at the Killarney Golf and Country Club this week.

The 21-year-old multi-millionaire has two Tour titles to his credit — the Dubai Desert Classic last year and the Quail Hollow championship this season — and he's primed for a strong challenge.

Speaking at the launch of the latest ‘EA Sports Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11' computer game on which he features, McIlroy gave a cool appraisal of his form to date.

“I would split my season into two halves. The first half, three out of ten, the second half eight or nine out of 10,” he said.

“The first half of the season I struggled. I had the sore back and I just wasn't really getting into any sort of momentum.

“Quail Hollow just sort of came out of the blue a little bit. I missed the cut at The Players the week after, but since then it's been good.”

McIlroy, number eight in the world rankings, starts the 3 Irish Open as the top-ranked player in the tournament and at 7-1, is the bookies’ favourite.

The talented Holywood boy is very comfortable with that position.

“It's fine. It's a nice little bit of extra pressure to have, definitely,” he said.

McIlroy's game is in good shape as he shapes up for the Tour title he would most love to win outside of a Major.

“If I was to add the Irish Open title this week it would probably be the most important win of my career to date, even though the other two were important milestones,” he said.

The lush parkland Killeen Course at Killarney is primed for a birdie blitz he predicts.

“I can't see the scoring going crazy but I'd say about 16 or 18 under par would have a very good chance,” said McIlroy.

Turning tipster, with himself out of the equation, McIlroy goes for Padraig Harrington as an Irish winner, and Justin Rose if there's not to be a home champion.

Reigning Irish Open champion Shane Lowry fielded the question of the day from European Tour colleague Peter Lawrie as they

ambled down the 16th fairway yesterday.

Clara man Lowry dramatically changed the perception of amateurs playing at the ‘3' Irish Open with his astonishing victory last year at Baltray. Never again will anyone say never when it comes to the prospects of an amateur winning one of Europe's most prestigious national open championships!

Lawrie, a quietly perceptive Dubliner, nodded to their two companions in yesterday's practice round, leading Irish amateurs Paul Cutler and Cian Curley, and said to Lowry: “You see these two lads here, this is you at this time before last year's Irish Open.

“You know Shane, what you did at Baltray must give them great hope for what they can do in the game,” Lawrie continued. “Did you have any expectations going into the event?”

“No,” replied Lowry, clearly needing little time to consider his answer.

“All along, I wanted to make the cut and get four rounds. I got off to a bad start last year. I remember being two-over through four and eventually shooting five-under that first day.

“Obviously, after the 62 in the second round, I was leading the tournament but until Friday evening, I never had any expecta

tions. Even shooting that 62, I didn't even know it happened until I came in an signed my card.

“It went so quick, it just happened.

“You know, I can hardly remember doing it. Every shot just happened,” added Lowry.

Now 23 and well-settled into his career as a professional, he looks back on last year's “life-changing events” and suggests the five formidable amateurs in this year's field at Killarney could overturn the odds and follow his footsteps to victory at the Open.

Irish Amateur Open Champion Alan Dunbar, 2009 Close-winner Pat Murray, Lytham Trophy hero Cutler, East of Ireland kingpin Curley and French invitee Victor Dubuisson, 20, who became World No 1 with last year's victory at the European Amateur Championship, all have the raw talent to make waves by Lough Leane this week.

“In a way, it's different for them because I knew Baltray so well,” Lowry continued. “Also with the roped fairways, the crowds, the grandstands, the Tour vans and everything else you find at a European Tour event, it is going to be different for them.

“Yet, as I said to the two lads this morning, they are playing well, so just go ahead and give it a rip. If you don't make the cut, you don't make the cut. Just go out and see what happens.

“If you play good enough golf, especially out there this week, you'll do well. There's a lot of chances out there, so if you're on your game, you could finish right up there.”

Darren Clarke, who described Lowry's efforts last year as “amazing”.

“I tried, God knows, for 17 or 18 years as a pro to win the Irish Open and never managed it.

“What Shane did was fantastic but it's not beyond the realms of possibility for someone to do it again.”

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