Few places in all of sport are so redolent with history and not many events had their origins as long ago as 150 years. The champions at the Home of Golf range from Tom Kidd in 1873 to Tiger Woods in 2005 and in between legends like Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus (twice), Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, to mention but a few, have departed the “Old Grey Toon” bearing the claret jug aloft.
Demonstrating how difficult a thing it is to do, however, is the absence from the list of such illustrious names as Harry Vardon (who holds the record with six Opens to his credit), Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson. So the prize could hardly be greater for the man who prevails on Sunday evening next with a massive expectation among the huge number of Irish visitors here that our recent magnificent record in major championships can be maintained.
Pádraig Harrington has two Opens and a USPGA on his CV while Graeme McDowell claimed immortality for himself with victory in the US Open at Pebble Beach last month. And now, I firmly believe, the time has come for Rory McIlroy to step up to the plate and keep the trend going. McIlroy may be only 21 and competing in only his second Open as a professional.
Tom Morris junior was just 17 years, five months and three days old when he won the Open, while the youngest to do it since Seve Ballesteros, who was 22 years, three months, 12 days when he came out on top at Royal Lytham St Annes in 1979. What right, then, has McIlroy at the tender age of 21 years, two months and 14 days to even think in terms of breaking through at such a tender age?
And yet, the positives outweigh the negatives. Chief among them is his outstanding record over the Old Course — eight competitive rounds, not one worse than 69. McIlroy has proved it where it most counts — with card and pencil in hand. And even if his season has blown a little cold so far — a sensational victory with a fine round of 62 in the Quail Hollow Championship offset by missing the cut in both the Masters and US Open — he has that very special talent so essential for success on the biggest days. He will need the rub of the green with what looks certain to be horrendous weather conditions. But that applies to everyone and patience will count for a lot.
“I’m sure I’m equipped to cope if the bad stuff comes our way,” he maintained. “I’ve been round here enough to know how to run shots into the greens and keep the ball below the wind. There’s not really much you can do when it’s wet, just try to keep as dry as possible and persevere. I’ve played in some bad conditions before. It’s the same for everyone.”
McIlroy played his first Open at Carnoustie in 2007 when Harrington won and Rory took the silver medal as leading amateur. He finished in a tie for 42nd, a creditable performance for an 18-year-old. He himself, however, was disappointed at failing to capitalise on an opening 68 and it was much the same story last year when a first day 69 seemed to set him up nicely. Once again, though, he fell away through the weekend to eventually share 47th place. Why should it be any different this time?
“In 2007 at Carnoustie, I was just happy to be there, I didn’t care whether I shot 68 or 78 in the first round,” he reasoned. “It was good to get round Turnberry in 69 but I actually didn’t play very well for that. I wasn’t playing well that week and that’s why I fell away. I’ve never beaten myself up about it. I’ve only played in two and I realise I’ve got a lot more Open Championships ahead of me.”
The bookmakers have made McIlroy joint third favourite after Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and that in itself imposes additional pressure. But he accepts it and indeed deep down allows it to further boost his self-confidence.
“I’ve played well around this course and that gives me a lot of confidence,” he says. “I suppose it also brings a little bit of added pressure knowing that I’m expecting to play well and I’m sure a lot of people are also expecting me to play well. But I have a lot of great memories from this place and hopefully they can stand by me.”
You get the impression speaking to McIlroy that nothing has been left to chance. After the JP McManus Pro-Am in the early days of last week, he turned his attentions to links golf at Royal Co Down and Royal Portrush, then came over to St Andrews for a couple of practice rounds before going back home again and playing Co Down once more with his father Gerry on Sunday evening.
“You can get swallowed up with the whole occasion because it is St Andrews and the Open so I was in no mad rush to get here,” he explained. “I’m just trying to stay as low profile as possible. I’m making sure when it comes to Thursday, I’m full of energy and ready for the next four days.”
McIlroy has promised to adopt a more conservative approach than he would in a Dunhill Links round at St Andrews but it’s in his nature to be aggressive.
“If you look at the past winners here, John Daly in ‘95, Tiger the last couple of times, they’re guys renowned for hitting it long and being aggressive,” he pointed out. “Hopefully, that will play into my hands. I’m not putting myself under pressure to perform. Seeing G-Mac (Graeme McDowell) win the US as well, it just seems the right time to go out and play well and win one of these big events.”