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Comment: With Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell hitting form, Royal Portrush will host an Open Championship like no other

 

Coming home: Graeme McDowell has qualified for The Open in Portrush
Coming home: Graeme McDowell has qualified for The Open in Portrush
Rory McIlroy is showing his top form again

By Deric Henderson

There are still a number of spaces to be filled, but as far as the good people of Portrush are concerned, and especially the members of his hometown club, the list is complete.

All is well, and Graeme McDowell will stride across a specially constructed bridge and then descend a staircase to take his rightful place on the first tee at the 148th Open Championship next month.

Rory McIlroy is thankfully back to his brilliant best with a breathtaking victory at the Canadian Open.

But the shrieks of delight which greeted that win in Ontario were nothing compared to the massive sigh of relief at the clubhouse at Rathmore where they worship the ground G-Mac walks on.

Rory won by the proverbial mile to give him his 16th career PGA win, and by finishing joint eighth in that tournament, McDowell has now guaranteed himself an Open spot. After all the lingering doubts and fears that he might not qualify after slipping well outside the world's top 100, his name will definitely appear on all the giant scoreboards scattered across the famous Dunluce Links.

This was already set to be an Open Championship like no other. It sold out ages ago, and the powerful images from a magnificent setting on the north coast will be seen by a worldwide TV audience of 600 million households. McDowell has endured a couple of difficult seasons, and there was a feeling that it might be touch and go if he could find the form to play his way in.

The R&A, the game's ruling body who organise and run the event, had always made it clear there could be no special exemptions, not even for the Portrush boy who's done his town proud. Those in charge at St Andrews were aware of the noises coming from various quarters that this was a special case, and to grant him an entry.

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G-Mac has never lost touch with the place where he emerged as a brilliant young amateur. He lives in Florida, but Portrush remains his spiritual home and his absence next month would have been desperately sad, especially for his local fan base.

What a difference a day makes though. McDowell, who this week returns to Pebble Beach for the US Open which he won in 2010, will be hugely relieved that he is free to play on territory which he knows like the back of his hand. No doubt McIlroy feels similarly.

Even though he won The Players Championship at Sawgrass and had 10 top-10 finishes already this year to leave him with tournament earnings of $5.4m (£4.25m) - and that's before the $1.4m (£1.1m) he picked up for winning the Canadian Open - some of his critics made the ridiculous claims that he'd lost his way; that the Rory of old was gone, and that his game was in free fall.

A missed cut at the US PGA and suddenly McIlroy isn't the player he once was, according to the doubters, and who would bet against him shooting another 61 like he did when qualifying for the North of Ireland Championship when he was aged just 16?

Some of the big television companies have already carried out reconnaissance missions as part of their preparations for next month, and that card he signed off 14 years ago will feature heavily in their coverage during Open week.

One or two from the United States said the course is out of this world, one of the finest they've ever visited. They can't wait to get the cameras into position and for the play to start and with Rory already installed as one of the favourites to win and McDowell a confirmed starter, the atmosphere should be electric.

• McIlroy is ready to play with complete freedom as he tries to create history by ending his Major drought at Pebble Beach.

McIlroy's victories in the Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA Championship in 2014 make him the last player to win a PGA Tour event immediately before winning a Major, but no player has ever followed a Tour victory with another at the US Open.

On the back of his win in Canada, McIlroy said: "It's an affirmation of what I can do when I play with complete freedom like I did over the weekend. Even (when winning) the Players Championship I sort of had to grind it out.

"You're sort of just hanging on, playing into the right spots, and I felt like this week I was free. I trusted myself 100 per cent and I hit the shots when I needed to.

"This victory probably gives me more confidence than at the Players because I played the way I did and I was so free, especially given the position I was in."

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