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Watch: Rory McIlroy takes time for fans and smashes driver as he aims to steal a march on rivals at Open Championship

By Andy Hampson

Rory McIlroy has begun his Open preparations early in an attempt to turn his latest frustrations to his advantage.

The world number four has been dogged by form and fitness issues this year and he heads into the Open at Royal Birkdale this week after missing three cuts in his last four events.

His latest setback came as he was eliminated prematurely at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open on Friday.

In an attempt to make the most of a difficult situation, however, the Northern Ireland star has used his unplanned free weekend to travel to the Southport links early for extra preparation.

The 28-year-old said: "Look, I'd still like to be up in Scotland playing, of course, but if it gives me a couple of extra days to learn this golf course then I don't really mind.

"I am excited. It is the Open championship, one of the biggest events of the year.

I feel like my game is not far away. I feel like over the next few days I can get a bit of good work done and be ready to go on Thursday."

The Open has brought the best out of McIlroy in the past, most obviously the last time the event was held on Merseyside three years ago, when he won by two strokes at Royal Liverpool.

He said: "To get the win in 2014 and get my name on the Claret Jug was a huge step in my career, and a huge step in me feeling a complete player.

"It was the third leg of the grand slam - I'm still waiting for the fourth one - but I love the Open, I love the fans.

"I love that it's Sunday and there are a few people following me already. It's always a week I look forward to."

McIlroy's game has been hampered by rib and back problems this year. He is now playing pain-free, but admits his issues are not fully resolved.

He said: "I am feeling okay, but it is something I am going to have to manage until the end of the year. It is good enough to play, it is good enough to practise a little bit. I hit balls for an hour and a half last night, but then felt stiff and said, 'That's enough'. But at least I know when enough is.

"I am just going to manage the load for the rest of the season, then I am just going to have a nice rest period when I don't have to touch a club and let it heal. Then hopefully I'll be 100% for next year.

"It's not as if I'm far off now, but it is just something I have to be mindful of for now."

Meanwhile, Danny Willett admits he may need painkillers to get him through this week's tournament.

The 2016 Masters champion has pulled out of three of his last five events due to a back injury, including last month's US Open and the Irish Open just over a week ago. The 29-year-old Yorkshireman is now trying to ease himself back into action and played a practice round at the Southport links on Sunday.

Willett said: "We've had a full week off resting with the back, so we'll see.

"We've just played 18 and it didn't feel too bad. I'll play nine in the next couple of days and hopefully it'll be all right.

"We were always going to come and see how it was instead of pulling out early. It's the Open Championship. You need to come here, even if you have to get a few drugs inside you to get through the week. That's how it's going to go.

"You never know (if it will be okay) until you go off on Thursday, but at the moment it feels all right."

Willett is not on heavy medication, but has been taking tablets for pain and inflammation.

It has been a frustrating situation and Willett feels he has been trapped in a circle where injury has led to poor form and that in turn has exacerbated his fitness issues. He said: "I've had better spells. It's been one thing after an another. I've had a little bit of injury then not swinging it great. Then, if you're not swinging it great, it doesn't help the body.

"I'm trying to click the reset button and get back to a few things that I know work."

A downbeat Henrik Stenson all-but dismissed his chances of retaining his Open title, despite a closing round of 68 in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. Stenson looked to be coming nicely into form as he carded six birdies in the space of nine holes during his final round at Dundonald Links, only to bogey the 15th and 18th.

And asked if he could match Padraig Harrington in winning back to back Open titles at Royal Birkdale, the 41-year-old Swede said: "I think we're hoping for a lot in terms of what we saw this week.

"We certainly need to step that up quite a lot if we want to have anything to do with it next week. There's always a chance and I'm going to enjoy the week. You never know, it might be the only time we're defending champion at the Open Championship so I might as well enjoy it.

"Not feeling that you're playing anywhere near 100%, you can't really put that pressure (on yourself) that you're going to be up there and contend."

He added: "Maybe we can turn things around a little bit but I'm looking forward to the week regardless."

After winning his epic duel with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon last year, Stenson went on to win Olympic silver in Rio and started 2017 with three top 10s in his first four events.

But he has missed the cut in both majors so far this season and admitted he had struggled to cope with the extra demands on his time which come with being a major champion.

"The long game hasn't been in good shape for a long time and you can't really work when you're trying to perform," he said.

"It's always that battle and I don't feel I have enough game to play the way I want to, and as soon as you go into practise mode you are losing the possibility to play your best."

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