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Why Rory will have few home comforts in Major mission


In swing: Rory McIlroy in practice yesterday

In swing: Rory McIlroy in practice yesterday

Rory  sharing a joke with Justin Thomas

Rory sharing a joke with Justin Thomas

In swing: Rory McIlroy in practice yesterday

"This is bigger than me, right?" he asked, repeating his words with the enunciation of a newsreader.

Rory McIlroy's world this week is a giant X-ray machine. A public CAT scan. Portrush isn't his town, but The Open in Portrush feels like his tournament.

There was a hint of Shackleton dipping in out of a polar blizzard about his arrival into the press marquee yesterday.

Wind-cheater pulled tight to the neck, the canvas overhead bucked and flexed as McIlroy spoke, the branded backdrop quivered. Outside, a south-westerly wind was gusting in sociopathic outbursts, the rain spilling down in torrents.

"A proper Portrush day if you like!" as Graeme McDowell put it.

It isn't McIlroy's weather, though, and the forecast for this manicured coastline isn't hopeful for the coming days. Yet he is favourite to win the 148th Open Championship. This man who former European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn describes as "the only guy I would pay to watch" is a short price to outsmart the most gilded field in golf.

Five years on from his last Major win and a young lifetime removed from that storied day in '05 when he shot 61 here in the North of Ireland Open, McIlroy carries a weight on his shoulders that doesn't feel entirely rational.

He does so with finishing school manners and an openness the media appreciates. But people keep tossing the word "legacy" in his direction and it feels as if they're almost setting traps. The Troubles get referred to in breezy, abstract terms, just a wisp of smoke from under the floor.

Someone else would duck and weave. Rory tells a story.

"I remember I watched a movie a couple of years ago, it was just basically called '71'," he offered almost unsolicited. "It's about a British soldier that gets stationed in the Palace Barracks in Holywood, which is literally 500 yards from where I grew up. And it basically follows him on a night of the Troubles and all that.

"And I remember asking my mum and dad, is this actually what happened?

"And it's amazing to think, 40 years on, it's such a great place. No one cares who they are, where they're from. You can have a great life and it doesn't matter what side of the street you come from."

Mercifully nobody thought of asking him about Saturday night's bands event, a potentially incendiary issue tossed later towards a diplomatic McDowell instead.

"I'm not intelligent and educated enough in the real intricacies of why and how we still do this stuff," replied he Portrush native wisely.

"People like to celebrate. As long as it's all respectfully done, we'll listen to people. It's a free country, right?

"I don't really want to get into that stuff. It's a very difficult conversation and Northern Ireland is a very unique place."

Something McIlroy knows better than most.

He is a global figure now, sharing a distinction with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only men who had won four Majors by the age of 26. Nicklaus eventually declared at a haul of 18, three ahead of Tiger's current tally.

Rory, though, still sits on four, the golf world waiting for those digits to begin spinning.

In the vernacular of the game, he's been doing little wrong. A recent CBS study ranked him No.1 for "strokes gained" and the fourth best in that field since stats people started keeping such statistics.

In McIlroy's own estimation, his golf has never been more consistent.

But Tuesday's gallery hinted at the inordinate weight pressing down on him this week.

And ultimately every conversation about his title chances here gets hauled back to that same, nagging question.

How on earth can he hope to deal with the pressures of a tournament all but marketed as his Open?

"I think it's probably easier this week because it's such a big tournament" he argued unconvincingly.

"You've got the best players in the world here and I don't feel like I'm the centre of attention. I think that coming back here for the first time in 68 years, some of the other players that are here... look, I'm from Northern Ireland and I'm playing at home.

"That can go one of two ways, right? I've always felt I've played my best golf when I've been totally relaxed and loose. And maybe that environment is what I need.

"I can't just put the blinkers on and pretend that's not all going on. One of my sort of mantras this week is 'Look around and smell the roses'."

It didn't quite sound a battle-cry.

McIlroy tests our patience because, so often, he forsakes our trust. The very talent that Bjorn elevates in estimation beyond his peers hasn't, yet, propelled Rory into serious Major contention this season. He seems error-prone under pressure. The wedge runs cold; the putter becomes a broom-handle.

And maybe most vitally, the advantage off the tee that helped him soar so high back in 2011 simply doesn't exist now against fellow big-hitters like Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka.

In Mike Calvin's 'Mind Game', Padraig Harrington suggests McIlroy was competing "against himself" back then. Now life isn't as simple.

On some perverse level, he is the most resolutely pleasant, spectacularly successful disappointment in our lives.

Yesterday, McIlroy spoke eloquently and interestingly as he always does. He remembered childhood days of coming to Portrush and killing time on the putting green while his dad, Gerry, played in the North of Ireland.

He entertained that word 'legacy' with a politician's ease and even re-iterated his U-turn on playing at the next Olympics despite, as McDowell put it, that subject sitting "in a unique, precarious" place for the people of Northern Ireland.

It was one of those pre-tournament masterclasses that made you marvel at his even intelligence and articulacy under history's unblinking stare.

But, outside, the wind and rain just threatened war.

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