McIlroy cannot escape Open Championship spotlight at Portrush

McIlroy cannot escape Open Championship spotlight at Portrush

There is a stencil artwork of a young Rory McIlroy on a wall by the Portrush seafront. The photograph on which it is based shows the cherubic face of a boy no older than seven or eight, his eyes tracing the flight of a golf ball he has just struck.

Off in the distance, about a mile from that depiction, sits the town's famous links course, Royal Portrush, which plays host to the 2019 Open Championship.

On Thursday, a 30-year-old McIlroy will step onto the first tee as the favourite to win the Claret Jug. It would be the Northern Irishman's second, and a fifth major triumph in total.

Speaking on the eve of that landmark day, McIlroy addressed a crowd of media larger than that which had assembled for 15-time major winner Tiger Woods 24 hours earlier and declared: "I'm not the centre of attention."

It may have been modesty, or perhaps just a case of wishful thinking, as McIlroy appears determined to understate the role he has to play on home soil while everyone else talks up his part.

"One of my sort of mantras this week is: Look around and smell the roses," he said. 

"This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general, and to be quite a big part of it is an honour and a privilege.

"I want to keep reminding myself of that, that this is bigger than me, right? This is bigger than me."

He said it twice, first posed as a question, the second time a statement. It was an attempt to convince not only those listening but also himself.

McIlroy knows that even if the tournament itself does indeed eclipse his own significance, there is no single player this week who will attract a greater share of the spotlight. No, not even Tiger.

The Open has been a happy hunting ground for McIlroy, who won it in 2014 before an ankle injury suffered during an ill-advised football kickabout ruled him out of defending his title.

Since then, in three subsequent outings at the world's oldest major, he has not finished outside the top five.

Woods and Phil Mickelson are the only two active players with more major wins than McIlroy, but it has been five years since his last and there is a growing sense he may fall short of the admittedly lofty expectations that once rested on his shoulders, and in many ways still do. 

Over the next four days - because the notion of McIlroy missing the cut at this event cannot be seriously entertained - he will feel those expectations manifest in the form of widespread goodwill from the massed ranks of fans who will line the Portrush course in the hope of seeing a fairy tale play out.

The locals here are proud to see this venue hosting The Open once again, many of them having not been born when it last had the honour 68 years ago. For one of the country's most famous exports to win it would make them prouder still.

That would be a story a young McIlroy could scarcely have comprehended.

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