Rory McIlroy: Closer to the dream

Rory McIlroy believes he can triumph in The Open at Turnberry next week – and no one is arguing. James Corrigan reports

Rory McIlroy has already won the Open Championship at Turnberry. Last Monday, in fact, when he was playing a practice round in the company of his long-time coach, Michael Bannon. "When we got to the 18th I told Michael I needed a par four to lift the Claret Jug," he said. "I went ahead, got my four."

This may have been the mere fantasies of a young man only recently out of his teenaged years. But over the last few months, McIlroy has shown a propensity for turning mere fantasies into sizeable realities. "You have to dream, you have to think big," is the way he sees it. "But you can't allow yourself to dream when you tee off for real."

On Thursday, McIlroy will indeed tee if off "for real" on the Ailsa Course and so resume the inexorable march many envisaged him making on his one and, so far, only appearance at the Open two years ago. At Carnoustie, he was the 18-year-old amateur who dared take on the beast of Angus and humble it rather spectacularly with a 68 that was the only bogey-less round of a torrid first day. McIlory might have tailed off into a tie for 42nd thereafter, but the world had seen enough to believe here was a champion in waiting. And if this season's stunning rise into the world's top 20 is anything to go by, that might not prove a very long wait.

"I went up there in '07 with nothing to lose," recalled McIlroy. "It was a fantastic week for me, my first Open, my first major. I remember standing alongside Padraig [Harrington] when I was picking up the silver medal as leading amateur and thinking to myself I would love to do that one day.

"In his speech Padraig mentioned me doing it. Back then, I had a very different mindset. I was just keen to get experience. This year I am going in thinking I have a chance to win if I play the way I know I can. Seeing Padraig winning made it easier for me to visualise being in his position. I have known Padraig a long time, and you think 'if he can win the Open so can I'.''

If that sounds cocky then many in the game will advise Rory has every right to be cocky. This week at the Scottish Open Ian Poulter has become the latest to feel his jaw hitting turf when seeing his young rival's sweet motion for the first time. "Give him a couple of years and he will seriously trouble Mr Woods," said the Englishman. That's a couple of days in McIlroy's time machine.

In truth, he has not been at his very best on the loch these last few days, although the manner in which he recovered from a sluggish front nine yesterday to post a 71 to stand eight off the pace on three-under yelled of an established professional. A year ago he came to the Highlands needing a top five finish to qualify for Birkdale and came up short. However, this was an important moment in his young career.

"I had the week off and watched it on the telly," said McIlroy. "That made me even more determined to get into the Open. In fact, making every big event was the priority after that, and it was good when I kicked on and got into the world's top 50. Once there I started to get paired with other top 50 players and that helps you lift your game. When I first played with Ernie [Els] I felt like I belonged."

McIlroy belongs all right; a view shared by everyone from the fans to the administrators. Indeed, the word is that the Royal & Ancient are even considering partnering him with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds. Many factors might convince them to do otherwise, although the lad's sensitivities should clearly not be one of their concerns.

"Driving is obviously the strength of my game," said McIlory, "but my inner confidence is another of my stronger assets. I believe in myself 100 per cent, and when I arrive at the first tee I always feel I'm going to be very close to winning. Possibly I didn't have that when I started out as a pro. I had it as an amateur. Which is probably why I won so much. I'm getting it back."

Holywood star: McIlroy's rise

*Born in Holywood (Northern Ireland) in April 1989, McIlroy enjoyed a stellar amateur career – including a superb opening round of 68 at the Carnoustie Open – before turning pro in 2007.

*By the end of 2008 he had become the youngest player in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings after finshing second in the Hong Kong Open.

*His first professional win came in the Dubai Classic earlier this year, at the age of 19 and 273 days. It made him the youngest winner on the European Tour since Sergio Garcia a decade earlier. It also elevated him to 16th in the world rankings.

*He made his Masters debut in April and finished a highly creditable 20th place. Last month he finished 10th in the US Open, underlining his huge potential.