Rory is ready for the madness as world tunes in for new hero
Ulsterman's arrival brings Open venue to a standstill – but only after the R&A forget to pick him up
Rory McIlroy's bid to defy history here at this week's Open Championship hardly got off to the most encouraging start yesterday. The 22-year-old flew from Belfast to Manston, but when he arrived at the small Kent airport he found no car and no way of travelling the six miles to Sandwich.
The Royal and Ancient had booked the chauffeur for the wrong time and a stranded McIlroy was forced to phone his manager. Chubby Chandler later revealed that there were two cars to pick up Ernie Els, McIlroy's partner for the first two rounds. Chaos, was the word on everybody's lips.
McIlroy eventually arrived at the course before lunchtime and did so to a welcome usually reserved for Tiger Woods. Huge crowds watched the Ulsterman chip and putt. He did not venture out on to the links, but will play his one and only practice round in competition week this morning. As the Woods comparisons become stronger and stronger, he will tee off with his countryman Darren Clarke at 6.30am. That's Tiger's time.
And his odds are also becoming positively Tigeresque. Ladbrokes reported two bets of £20,000 at 8-1 on the US Open champion becoming the first debutant winner of a major to win the very next major since the Second World War. When asked if these were gambles of "shrewd punters or desperate men", he replied: "I'll go for the first option."
It was a typically assured performance by this remarkable young man. There were twice as many journalists crammed into the interview room as there had been for Luke Donald, the world No 1, a little earlier. The press conference was shown live on American TV, but McIlroy was not overawed. He dismissed fears about his preparation – a three-week break following the US Open which saw him attend as many high-profile sporting events as he did sponsors' days – and spoke of his confidence. "I'm glad I didn't play after looking at what happened in Scotland last week," said McIlroy, referring to the storms which hit Castle Stuart. "If I played in France I knew I wouldn't be giving myself the best chance to prepare properly. The last 10 days have been good. I've got back into my routine. I was here last week and got in two good practice rounds and feel my preparation has been really good. I have to forget what happened three weeks ago and just try to win another golf tournament."
McIlroy knows this is anything but another golf tournament. When he tees off at 9.09am in the company of Els and the American Rickie Fowler tomorrow, there will be a media presence rivalling that of the galleries. "It's going to be madness," said Chandler. Yet McIlroy insists he will be unfazed. "I'm the sort of person that likes to have people watching," said the player who has led seven of the eight major rounds played so far this year. "I like to have a bit of a buzz around the group. I'll definitely enjoy it. Hey, it's not going to be the first time I'll play in front of big crowds. Last time I played a competitive round of golf, I had a pretty big crowd following me."
Whatever he wishes, the memories of Congressional will burn bright when he resumes his career. But as McIlroy pointed out, "This is a completely different golf course. It's firm and fast and with the wind you're going to have to keep the ball low," he added. "But sometimes it's hard to run the ball into the greens because they're so undulating and the ball can bounce so many different ways. So you'll need a strong ball flight."
McIlroy has been working with his coach, Michael Bannon, on perfecting that shot and insiders in Team Rory revealed the sessions have gone well. "He's chomping at the bit," said one of his handlers. "We should have had raw meat delivered."
McIlroy was asked if he would settle for two 70s after last year's 63-80 opening at St Andrews. "If it's good enough to win, it's good enough for me," he said. "If it's windy I'll take two 70s in the first two rounds here, definitely. But you can't really put a number on it. If the wind keeps up like this, St George's is one of the toughest Open tests that we have. Solid golf is good enough for me, as long as it's better than everyone else's solid golf."
McIlroy's rivals do not know what to expect from the world No 4. Jason Day, the Australian who has finished second in the last two majors, spoke for many when saying: "It's going to be massive for him, he's done it in the past but this is a new experience. He is favourite... and lots of people think he's going to come out and just kill it."
A major front-runner
Rory McIlroy has led after eight of the last 16 rounds in major championships:
2010 The Open (St Andrews) – round one, 63, (finished tied for 3rd)
2011 The Masters – round one, 65
2011 The Masters – round two, 69
2011 The Masters – round three, 70 (Ended tied 15th after final-round 80)
2011 US Open – round one, 65
2011 US Open – round two, 66
2011 US Open – round three, 68
2011 US Open – round four, 69
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