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'It still just feels like Portrush': Rory McIlroy hasn't lost his feel for The Open course

 

Familiar surroundings: Rory McIlroy is savouring the chance to clinch Major glory on home soil
Familiar surroundings: Rory McIlroy is savouring the chance to clinch Major glory on home soil

By Phil Casey

Rory McIlroy was pleasantly surprised to feel right at home at Royal Portrush after reacquainting himself with the venue for next week's Open Championship.

McIlroy set the course record at Portrush with a 61 in the North of Ireland Championship aged 16, although the layout has since been changed, with the previous 17th and 18th holes removed and two new ones built into the middle of the round.

Large grandstands have also been erected to house some of the 43,750 spectators who will attend each Championship day as The Open returns to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.

"I expected it to feel different than it did. It still just feels like Portrush to me," McIlroy said of his practice round on Saturday.

"The stands are up and it looks fantastic, but it's still the same course. I haven't played it much the last few years. We played the Irish Open there in 2012. I played the new holes in 2017 and played 18 holes in October.

"When I got on the first tee, everything sort of started coming back to me; on the second tee, I aim it at the brown house. It felt like the same old course that I grew up playing and it was nice.

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"I had not seen my mum in three months and I made arrangements to go to dinner and I said if we could have it about 8pm because I don't know how much time I'm going to have to spend at Portrush.

"And I ended up moving the dinner forward because I didn't need to spend as much time as I thought, which is a comforting thing in a way. It was great to see it. It's been a long time in the making and everyone over there is so excited for next week."

McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Portrush native Graeme McDowell will be the centre of attention, but the former is taking confidence from his recent Open record as he tries to lift the Claret Jug for a second time and end a five-year Major drought.

"It's the same course I've grown up playing, and it's the same tournament that I haven't finished outside the top five in for the last few years," McIlroy added. "They are two pretty good factors and I just need to keep reminding myself of that. It's the same tournament and same course."

McIlroy opted against competing in the Irish Open last week in favour of contesting the ASI Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club and insists he is not simply preparing for Portrush.

"As much as these weeks set you up for the week after, I'm playing this event with two eyes firmly focused on the Scottish Open," added the 30-year-old, who has never won a tournament in Scotland. "It's not as if I'm trying to replicate shots or different things here I might be doing in Portrush.

"First and foremost I want to play well here. I want to get myself into contention and have a chance to win. I think if I do that, that's the best way to prepare for next week. Feel the heat of getting in there on Sunday and trying to play some good golf.

"I think it's a little disrespectful when people come in and they are treating it as a warm-up. I think most tournaments deserve to stand on their own two feet and have some stature, and the Scottish Open is one of these events.

"It's a big event. A lot of prize money, a lot of points. So it deserves to stand alone and not just be this tournament that's attached on to the week after. I'm fully focused on getting out there and playing well this week and trying to get myself in the mix."

Meanwhile, former World No.1 Justin Thomas is eager to solve the conundrum of links golf.

Thomas has missed the cut in The Open Championship in the last two years and has a best finish of 53rd on his debut at Royal Troon in 2016, despite insisting he is a big fan of links golf.

"I love it. I really, really do love it," the 2017 US PGA champion said. "If I could play one golf course every day for the rest of my life it would probably be a links golf course over here because it can play so different every single day and every week.

"That part is enjoyable, and you have to hit so many different kinds of shots and you have to have a lot of imagination. But, that being said, I haven't been very successful on links golf.

"I just haven't figured it out totally. So this is why we felt like it was the best decision to come to the Scottish Open and to get at least one more tournament under our belt before next week.

"The thing is I've had a good round every Open. I've played well the first day and I've been in the top-10 or top-20, and every Friday I've had bad conditions and had a hard time dealing with it. I have to learn to alter my game plan."

Thomas was two shots off the lead after an opening 67 at Royal Birkdale in 2017 but slumped to a second round of 80, while he was tied eighth after an opening 69 at Carnoustie in 2018 but shot 77 in round two.

He added: "Experiences like that unfortunately are what's going to help me going forward."

Meanwhile, the R&A and Sky Sports announced yesterday that they have extended their agreement for live coverage of The Open through to 2024.

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