PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – On the final day of practice for the final major of the year, Rory McIlroy ripped a shot out of the light rough and began walking toward the green when he stopped in the middle of the fairway for a quick interview with Sky Sports.
That’s normal for McIlroy at any British Open.
Fans stood six deep, creating a corridor as he walked to the third tee on Wednesday. The grandstand was full and the gallery framed the entire par 3, despite heavy clouds that began to darken with the promise of more rain at Royal Portrush.
No, this is not a normal British Open — certainly not for McIlroy no matter how hard he tries to convince himself as golf’s oldest championship returns to his native Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years.
“You’ve got the best players in the world here, and I don’t feel like I’m the center of attention,” McIlroy said at a news conference before a media gathering larger than it was for Tiger Woods.
He is not the only Ulsterman who tees off Thursday in pursuit of a claret jug.
Graeme McDowell was raised in Portrush and was a member of Rathmore Golf Club, which is owned by Royal Portrush and shares the same links along the North Atlantic. Darren Clarke forged his game as a junior at Royal Portrush and now calls it home.
McIlroy is different.
He is a four-time major champion and No. 3 in the world, and Royal Portrush is where he came of age in golf. It’s where his father brought him for his 10th birthday, when he met Clarke for the first time. It’s where he first delivered on his potential at 16 when he shot a course-record 61 in the North of Ireland Amateur.
“Portrush has been a very big — at least the golf club — part of my upbringing,” McIlroy said. “It’s sort of surreal that it’s here.”
Just another Open?
It was the first time in 159 years of the British Open that tickets had to be purchased in advance, including two practice rounds. That brings the attendance total for the week to 237,500, second only to the Old Course at St. Andrews.
“I can’t just put the blinkers on and pretend that’s not all going on,” McIlroy said. “One of my mantras this week is look around and smell the roses. This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general. And to be quite a big part of it is an honor and a privilege. And I want to keep reminding myself that this is bigger than me. And I think if you can look at the bigger picture, it sort of takes a little bit of the pressure off.
“I still want to play well and concentrate and do all the right things,” he said. “But at the same time, just having that perspective might make me relax a little bit more.”
A steady rain slowed the final day of practice, along with a stronger wind that gives this course its best defense.
McIlroy and Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay, McDowell and others were among those who took in a rare, late afternoon round for being the eve of the Open.
Woods was a late afternoon arrival on the range, hoping to sharpen a swing in only his fourth tournament since he won the Masters. Before long, the rain returned.
“It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like to have it right now,” Woods said Tuesday. “My touch around the greens is right where I need to have it. I still need to get the shape of the golf ball a little bit better than I am right now, especially with the weather coming in and winds are going to be changing.”
The R&A awarded Clarke the honor of starting off the British Open. Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy are in the early half of the draw; Woods, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson are among the late starters.
It promises to be quite a show.
“I’ve never seen the town look so great,” McDowell said. “Just the buzz from the people this week, it’s been amazing the last few days.”
Royal Portrush has two new holes — Nos. 7 and 8, land used from Rathmore’s Valley Links — since the last British Open in 1951, or even the Irish Open in 2012. McIlroy returned home the weekend before the Scottish Open to get a full day of preparation.
McIlroy, who lives in Florida now, hadn’t seen his mother in three months and wanted to have dinner, so he told her about 8 p.m., leaving enough time to properly get reacquainted with Royal Portrush for the Open.
And then he called her back and asked to move up the reservation. He finished early.
“It’s the same golf course,” he said. “I think I was making it a little bigger in my head than it needed to be. And I’ve played this place enough times to know where to miss it, where not to miss it. No matter if there’s grandstands around or if there’s not, if there’s a lot of people or if there’s not, it’s the same golf course.”
Same, yes. But still very different.