if rory McIlroy needed any gauge of the clamour which will welcome him here this morning then he was given it in quite disturbing circumstances at the side of the 18th hole yesterday. He admitted to knowing how Tiger Woods felt, which is apt as that is exactly the role he will be filling when the 140th Open Championship tees of today.
McIlroy walked off the final green after his one and only official practice round and was confronted with a huge crowd yelling for his autograph. The 22-year-old obliged before suddenly stopping and making his way to the clubhouse. The reasons were not selfish. "I really had to stop because there were people getting hurt at the front because of the fences," said McIlroy.
The frenzy was predictable, if not inevitable. Ever since his eight-shot victory at the US Open three weeks ago, the excitement has been building for his competitive return. That it comes not just at a major, but as he says at "my home major" has only cranked up the anticipation to ecstatic levels. As stress rehearsals go, yesterday's was the briefest snapshot of his future.
"I just thought today I'd get up early and get out there and try to sort of keep it a little bit low key, not that I can do that anymore," said McIlroy explaining his 6.50am tee-off. "I can understand why Tiger would go out at that time," he added.
Earlier in the week he refused extra security saying he wanted to remain accessible to his fans and somewhere in Florida, Woods might have enjoyed a small chuckle. Perhaps only he knows what lay in wait for McIlroy, not just the distraction outside the ropes but the distraction within. Not since Woods 14 years ago, has any favourite in a major been younger. Just 22. But with experts hailing him as the next heir to Jack Nicklaus.
At least McIlroy has already waved something in glory here, and his legion of fans will be praying he can play out the scene outside the scorer's hut to more significant effect in front of the clubhouse on Sunday evening. True, this time it was only a £20 note won from Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. South Africa's two young major champions had joined Darren Clarke and McIlroy on the 11th and then challenged them to a fourball. Wrong choice. "Rory's swinging the club lovely," said Clarke. "He's got the ball under control and is playing great." But then, Clarke, who was for so long mentor to his young countryman, brought a halt to what he called the "sycophancy". "Listen I'm not going to stand here and gush about him anymore," barked Clarke. "Just calm yourself will ya?"
Fat chance. Clarke might as well have barked at the Gods to calm the gusts, which seem determined to make this Championship such a searching test. McIlroy is the focus and it matters not a jot that for the first time in history England take the world's No 1 and 2 into its home Open. He is centre of the narrative; the golfing world now spins around him. Even the weather forecast is reviewed with McIlroy in mind.
On that score, it's apparently bad news for McIlroy. This morning will feature gusts which will die down in the afternoon. Tomorrow will start off calm, with the winds building later. In other words it will be a sizeable advantage to go out late today and early tomorrow. McIlroy has the early-late draw.
No doubt, he will console himself with the thought that seaside weather predictions are notoriously inaccurate. But still, the outlook will be of concern. McIlroy is not the only marquee name who would be suffering. Luke Donald, the world No 1, will be immediately behind the McIlroy group, which also includes the American Rickie Fowler and Ernie Els. And if the winds blow as vehemently as yesterday, Donald might not even reach the fairway on holes such as the seventh.
That remains speculation but what does seem certain is that the conditions will boast an influence on the outcome. "It will be all about strong ball-flight and this is what Rory's been working on," said Stuart Cage his closest handler. To this end, McIlroy has introduced a two-iron to his bag for the first time in his professional career. He found the club in the corner of his garage and it is so old he had it regripped and tested to check it conforms to new regulations. "It's instead of the five-wood just to keep the ball lower," said McIlroy. "Hopefully it'll be a help to me this week."
If he escapes the worst of it, the draw could also actually assist. "Rory loves to go off early and post his number," said his manager, Chubby Chandler. The evidence is carved across the 2011 golfing landscape. At the Masters, McIlroy led after the first round and held on until the 10th hole of that fateful finale. At Congressional he led after the first round and proceeded to pull ever further away. Up and at 'em – it's the Rory way. And mindful of this, some mighty shrewd judges were backing him at 10-1 last night to be the first-round pacesetter.
Then it would be a case of: "How low can he go?" Yet surely it won't work out so simply, not here, not on this quirky layout which will witness bad breaks and outrageous breaks, very probably in unequal measure. "The winner will be the player who copes best with the swings and roundabouts," said Padraig Harrington. It will be about hanging around, about remaining patient and about holing six-footer after six-footer on Royal St George's imposing greens. Maybe Lee Westwood fits the bill most snugly.
Thus far, it's been perfect for the 38-year-old with two top threes from the last two Opens. McIlroy has hogged the spotlight and Westwood has basked out of it. The draw has seemingly – and it must be said, uncharacteristically – gone in his favour and the word from his camp is that "he is very, very confident". But then, so too must be Donald. Last week's victory in Scotland has confirmed his standing as the game's hottest player and it is almost inconceivable not to envisage yet another top 10 for Mr Consistency. "It's a lot about the short-game here," said the world No 3, Martin Kaymer. "So Luke Donald has a good chance."
But what of the Americans? Already they are in uncharted doldrums, having gone five majors winless. Is there any way they can avoid a blank sextet? In all honestly, it is a task to spot their serious challengers. Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Fowler even... all good young players with majors in their sights. But here they appear so inferior in comparison to a Euro contingent also featuring a resurgent Sergio Garcia. With Phil Mickelson missing something on the links there seem few stars with even fewer stripes.
But remember Ben Curtis and remember that, as in 2003, anything can happen "on the biggest pinball machine in the world". That is how they describe Sandwich and as Clarke's plea intimated yesterday it is unfair for such expectation to stalk McIlroy into an arena where luck will very likely deliver the verdict. But that's where he is and that's where we are. In many respects, the Rory era will start today in Kent. Up there to be shot at, with friendly fire all around.
The Open championship has been held at Sandwich 13 times, the first time in 1894. The last Englishman to win was Reg Whitcombe in 1938. The four most recent Opens at Sandwich:
Bill Rogers, 1981
Texan Rogers' only major win came at Sandwich 30 years ago. Leading from the second round onwards, he beat second-placed Bernhard Langer by four shots.
Sandy Lyle, 1985
The Scotsman's first major victory came after 10 wins on the European Tour. He beat Payne Stewart by one shot, to take a £65,000 prize.
Greg Norman, 1993
Despite a long career at the top of the game, Norman only won two majors, and this was the second of them, as he hit 64 – the lowest final round in Open history – to beat Nick Faldo by two shots.
Ben Curtis, 2003
A remarkable one shot win over Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh by 300-1 outsider Curtis, playing his first ever major. It was his first professional win.
Last 10 Open champions
2001 Lytham & St Annes, David Duval
2002 Muirfield rnie Els
2003 Sandwich, Ben Curtis
2004 Royal Troon, Todd Hamilton
2005 St Andrews, Tiger Woods
2006 Royal Liverpool, Tiger Woods
2007 Carnoustie, Padraig Harrington
2008 Birkdale, Padraig Harrington
2009 Turnberry, Stewart Cink
2010 St Andrews, Louis Oosthuizen
Selected tee-off times
6.41 & 11.42 T Jaidee (Thai), M Calcavecchia (US), G Storm
8.09 & 1.10 G Ogilvy (Aus), P Uihlein* (US), M A Jimenez (Sp)
8.31 & 1.32 N Watney (US), M Manassero (It), A Cabrera (Arg)
8.42 & 1.43 Y Ikeda (Japan), I Poulter, D Johnson (US)
8.58 & 1.59 P Casey, B Curtis (US), A Baddeley (Aus)
9.09 & 2.10 E Els (SA), R McIlroy, R Fowler (US)
9.20 & 2.21 L Donald, R Ishikawa (Japan), S Garcia (Sp)
9.31 & 2.32 H Mahan (US), R Goosen (SA), A Hansen (Den)
9.53 & 2.54 R Fisher, J Daly (US), P Hanson (Swe)
12.37 & 7.36 E Molinari (It), C Howell III (US), J Luiten (Neth)
12.59 & 7.58 J Byrd (US), D Clarke, Y Yang (S Kor)
1.32 & 8.31 Z Johnson (US), A Scott (Aus), J Rose
13.43 & 8.42 J Day (Aus), G McDowell, B Watson (US)
14.10 & 9.09 L Westwood, S Stricker (US), C Schwartzel (SA)
2.21 & 9.20 M Kaymer (Ger), L Oosthuizen (SA), P Mickelson (US)
14.32 & 9.31 H Stenson (Swe), T Lewis*, T Watson (US)
GB&Irl unless stated; *denotes amateur
Weather Light rain early morning, then cloudy for the rest of the day.
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