By Tom LaMarre
For Rory McIlroy, the 148th Championship this week at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Portrush, Northern Ireland, probably is the biggest tournament of his career.
The 30-year-old McIlroy, a four-time major champion, has been made the man to beat by the oddsmakers and will be the favorite of the gallery on the renovated and lengthened Dunluce Links since he grew up about 60 miles away in Holywood.
“There’s nothing that I’d like more than to lift that Claret Jug in front of all my friends and family,” said McIlroy, who captured the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. “Would it be my most special win? Certainly, 100 percent it would.
“I’m going to a golf course where I’ve played well before. I know it better than most of the guys who will be playing, so I have to go out there with a good mindset and, obviously, not let the occasion get the better of me and, hopefully, produce some good golf and give myself a chance.
“I feel like I can go into it and treat it like any other Open Championship. I’ve played a lot of them. I’ve done well in a lot of them. So, there’s no reason why I can’t do well with this one either.”
The only other time the oldest golf championship in the world has been played at Royal Portrush was in 1951, when Max Faulkner of England claimed his lone major title. That’s also the only other time the tournament was not played in Scotland or England.
McIlroy indeed knows the Portrush course well, having shot a course-record, 11-under-par 61 there with an eagle and nine birdies in qualifying for the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur Open at the age of 16.
“To have a round like that, do it there, have my dad watching, for me to shoot 61, was pretty cool,” said McIlroy, who won the West of Ireland Championship, Irish Amateur Close Championship in 2005 and 2006, and two years ago captured the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
However, McIlroy hasn’t won a major title since the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., failing in five attempts to win the Masters and join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to complete the Career Grand Slam.
Winning this week might be more important for him.
“I haven’t tried to hide the fact that playing a major championship, basically at home, would ever become an opportunity,” said McIlroy, who has 25 professional victories including 16 on the PGA Tour, and is guaranteed a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame one day.
“It’s going to be a massive week for golf, for the country and for me, personally. I have to go out there in the right frame of mind and not let anything get to me. If I can harness that sort of support from my home crowd and use it to my advantage and not feel like it’s a burden, then it can only help.
“I think one of the big things for me is to enjoy the experience.”
To win, the third-ranked McIlroy will have to beat rest of the best golfers in the world, including top-ranked Brooks Koepka, who has won four majors in the last three seasons, and Woods, who won the Masters in April for his 15th major victory.
Other major champions in the field include Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose of England, Jason Day of Australia, defending champion Francesco Molinari of Italy, Adam Scott of Australia, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Sergio Garcia of Spain, Webb Simpson and Gary Woodland, who won the U.S. Open last month.
Jon Rahm of Spain might be the best player without a major title, but others in contention for that dubious title include Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Paul Casey of England, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and Tommy Fleetwood of England.
McIlroy has done beaten them all before, but while this is the biggest week of his career, it also might be the greatest challenge.
- Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – Playing at home on a course he knows well should be a huge advantage for Rory, especially if he can control his emotions with the crowd support he will have at Royal Portrush. McIlroy is playing well this year with victories in the Players Championship and the RBC Canadian Open, plus nine other top-10 results.
- Brooks Koepka, United States – If Rory McIlroy was playing at home this week, Koepka probably would be the favorite since he won four of the last 10 majors and was second in two others. This year, he repeated in the PGA, tied for second in the Masters and tied for second in the U.S. Open. Koepka also won the CJ Cup early in the season.
- Dustin Johnson, United States – Surprisingly, DJ has won only one major title in his career—the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont—despite 17 top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events. He tied for second in the Masters and was solo second in the PGA this year, in addition to winning in Saudi Arabia and Mexico, so his game plays well outside the U.S.
- Francesco Molinari, Italy – The defending Open champion claimed his first major title last year by two strokes over four players, followed that up with a tie for sixth in the PGA to end the 2018 major season and opened this one with a tie for fifth in the Masters. Molinari also helped Europe win the Ryder Cup and captured the Race to Dubai in 2018.
- Justin Rose, England – Another player who surprisingly has only one major title to his name, the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, where he beat Jason Day and Phil Mickelson by two shots. Rose has 16 top-10 finishes in Grand Slam events, with a tie for second behind Francesco Molinari last year at Carnoustie his best result in the Open Championship.
- Tiger Woods, United States – At 43, Woods is trying to pace himself for the big events and has not played since he tied for 21st after winning the Masters in for his 15th major title. Among those are three in the Open—at St. Andrews in 2000 and 2005, and in 2006 at Royal Liverpool. Needs one victory to tie Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record of 82.
- Jon Rahm, Spain – The 24-year-old Spaniard rapidly is gaining support as the best player without a major title, with two top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events each of the last two years. Was fourth in the Masters and tied for fourth in the PGA last year, and tied for ninth in the Masters in April and tied for third in the U.S. Open last month.
- Jason Day, Australia – Claimed his only major title in the 2015 PGA Championship by three shots over Jordan Spieth at Whistling Straits and is overdue to win again after two victories last year. Day has six top-10 finishes this season, including a tie for fourth in the U.S. Open. Best result in the Open was a tie for fourth in 2015 at St. Andrews.
- Xander Schauffele, United States – It might help that Schauffele is playing alongside local hero Graeme McDowell in the first two rounds, but he doesn’t need too much help. Won the HSBC Champions and Sentry TOC this season, and has four top-six finishes in the majors the last two years, including a tie for second in the 2018 Open at Carnoustie.
- Justin Thomas, United States – The 2017 PGA champion, claiming his first major title by three strokes at Erin Hills, Thomas showed last week that he might be over a wrist injury that knocked him out of the PGA by closing with 65 to tie for ninth in the Scottish Open. Before the injury, he had five top-10 finishes and tied for 12th in the Masters.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH – Phil Mickelson, United States; Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland; Rickie Fowler, United States; Paul Casey, England; Jordan Spieth, United States; Tommy Fleetwood, England; Gary Woodland, United States; Sergio Garcia, Spain; Matt Kuchar, United States.
- Tony Finau, United States – Only one victory on PGA Tour, but is in contention often. Had three top-10s in the majors in 2018 and tied for fifth in the Masters in April.
- Bernd Wiesberger, Austria – Won the Scottish Open last week after a T-2 one week earlier in the Irish Open. Also won the Made in Denmark and leads the Race to Dubai.
- Haotong Li, China – Has six wins around the world and was solo third in 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale. Second in Saudi International, fourth in Volvo China Open this year.
- Shane Lowry, Ireland – Could benefit playing close to home on a links course. Lowry finished T-8 in the PGA two months ago and was T-9 in 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool.
- Kevin Kisner, United States – Thanks to winning WGC-Match Play, Kisner is sixth in Euro Tour’s Race to Dubai. T-2 behind Francesco Molinari in 2018 Open at Carnoustie.
For first-round tee times visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html