We follow Rory McIlroy on his practice round at The Open - he's finally dreaming of glory at Portrush
PORTRUSH - It was casual. It was care-free. It was fun.
Playing in front of home crowds for the first time since the Irish Open at Portstewart two years ago, Rory McIlroy looked like he was loving every minute of it.
With caddie Harry Diamond and long-time coach Michael Bannon flanking him, former Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn passing on advice and — for the front nine anyway — JB Holmes and Rafa Cabrera Bello for playing partners, McIlroy looked every bit at home as that 16-year old who shot 61 did all the way back in 2005.
Even when he was stung by an insect on the 13th tee and had to make a mad, impromptu dash to the toilets to take an anti-histamine, it didn’t spoil what was clearly a joyful walk around the Dunluce links, in awe of what has been achieved.
Perhaps even better for the 30-year-old was how he played.
For all the weight of expectation, the World No.3 swung the club like he was out for a round with his mates on a Friday night.
Off the tee he was near perfect, his ball striking was crisp and his short game, while a little rusty in places, was looking good.
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There was no doubt that this was McIlroy in his element, revelling in The Open that he had been dreaming of as a kid, now living out in front of him and that he was a part of.
That is what stands him, and perhaps Graeme McDowell, above everybody else in the field. While others have dreamed of playing in Open Championships as kids, only McIlroy and McDowell have been dreaming about this particular Open.
“I never had a putt on the putting green at Holywood Golf Club to win The Open at Royal Portrush,” smiled Rory, again harking back to his days as a kid, pretending every practice putt was career-defining, “it was always to win at St Andrews or Muirfield or wherever.”
Instead, that new dream has only come to the fore now.
“I remember coming and watching my dad play (at Royal Portrush),” he said.
“There was a little chipping green by the car park. I’d maybe see my dad play two or three holes but otherwise I’d spend all my day there.
“Ever since I was seven or eight until now I’ve had fond memories of Portrush and I’ve had great times here. Hopefully The Open will be another one of those great memories.”
So far, it has surpassed expectations.
With the R&A set to host a press conference today, the question of The Open returning to Portrush next time its slot is open in the rotation will raise its head, and the chances that the answer will be negative are slim.
That’s largely down to what McIlroy and co have managed to do in the north coast town by pulling in the first ever sell-out Open Championship. Crowds for yesterday’s practice alone were two deep around most greens for McDowell, with more and more spectators coming through the gates as the days progress.
While McIlroy may not have been dreaming of walking down the 18th at Royal Portrush - which, ironically, would have been the 16th when he was a child — with a chance of winning The Open, what greeted him at his final hole yesterday will have certainly whetted his appetite.
Crowds lined the fairways. Fans packed themselves into the famous stands lining the final green. Hordes of kids clamouring by the putting surface to try and get him to ink his signature onto a hat or a ball or a flag.
Play like he did yesterday and McIlroy has every chance at being one of the final men out on Sunday afternoon. So long it has perhaps been the mental side of his game that has held him back — this week, at home, it will be the physical side of his game that will need to come to the fore.
He had four genuine birdies in his first official practice round yesterday, and probably didn’t hole out for a couple more, and as far as mistakes went, there weren’t many to count.
If there was ever a time to be thinking about Claret, it might be now.
"I've tried to put it out of my thoughts but now that you're here and you see it come to fruition, it's hard not to think about holing a putt at Royal Portrush to win the Open," he told BBC podcast 'The Cut'.
“Winning The Open anywhere is special, but being from here and with my memories of the course it would probably mean a little bit more.
“If it were happen, I don’t know what the emotions would be. It would definitely take a lot for me not to burst out crying.”
That little kid’s dream is well and truly alive. The only difference is for the very first time for Rory McIlroy, it has the perfect setting.
Belfast Telegraph Digital