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Rory McIlroy primed to defend Irish Open crown at Portstewart Golf Club

Rory McIlroy at the first tee in Portstewart Golf Club yesterday Picture by Hugh Russell.
Tony McGee

From Tony McGee in Portstewart

WHEN the Irish Open was played in the Dublin region, Pádraig Harrington remarked that it was always difficult to settle to the task in hand. There were so many counter-attractions, like meeting old friends, relatives, etc and entertainment.

Rory McIlroy could rehash those sentiments, but he has got a schedule that suits him. He has possibly learned from Harrington's experiences.

“It is almost like I split the week in two parts,” he explained. “Monday to Wednesday I get everything that I need done. All of the stuff outside of playing and practising and preparing to play the golf tournament.

“Then, once I sort of get Wednesday over and done with, it is purely golf and I just want to play as best I can.

“I think that if I can play as well as I can and get myself into contention, it is a great thing for me and it is also a great thing for everyone else.

“Someone who is local, a top player, it creates interest and it

is great for the tournament.”

After that hail and rain-lashed victory at The K Club last year, McIlroy wears the mantle of defending champion and, strangely, he feels that makes this weekend's task easier. He has been there and done that and has achieved a lifetime ambition.

He once said that no matter how many other Opens or Masters successes he had, he wouldn't regard his career as a total success if he hadn't won the Irish Open. Now the monkey is off his back.

“I'm very proud to be sitting here as the defending champion. The Irish Open is a title I wanted to win since I was a young boy and to realise that dream last year was very special. Not only because of just winning but in the fashion that I won. It is definitely one of the highlights of my golfing career.

“I think, now that I have won the Irish Open, it is a little bit easier. I definitely felt the burden of it and being able to put my name on the trophy and call myself an Irish Open winner is nice.

“There is always that little bit of pressure when you come home to play and I have struggled with that in the past.

“I felt last year was one of the first times I embraced it and I felt that I used the crowd support in the right way, rather than it being a negative where you felt the pressure.

“I think that it was a turning point in my career because my form, previously in the Irish Open, wasn't too good. It was nice to get that win.”

“It is great to have the chance to defend the title and I feel that I'm playing well enough to be able to have a chance (of retaining the title). I'm looking forward to the week.”

McIlroy admits that his recent form has been up and down. With the rib injury he has had it has been something of a stop-start season.

However, he has played a lot over recent weeks and signing off with a 64 at the Travelers Championship was promising.

The defending Irish Open champion has also parked his social media activity for the time being after a recent Twitter exchange with former golfer Steve Elkington.

“I actually gave my phone to my wife, Erica and told her to change my password and not to tell me what it is. So, for the time being, I'm off social media,” he said.

What he is not off is, through the Rory Foundation, continuing to propel the Irish Open further up the scale of European Tour events.

The Holywood man is enthusiastic about what has happened to the annual home tournament and how it has climbed back to being one of the biggest events of the year.

With a prize fund of $7million it is no wonder that many of the world's top players are flocking to Ireland.

“The Irish Open has become one of the biggest weeks in the year, not only for me but for our Foundation,” he added.

“We are able to raise a lot of money for worthy causes during the week. I'm able to donate my prize money to the Foundation, so that's good. The European Tour Foundation has pledged £100,000, as well.”

The work is not yet finished and McIlroy suggested that he'd like to get the prize fund up to $10m but, still, he would be happy to keep it where it is.

The tournament is getting back almost to where it was in the '80s and '90s when the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer were winning the title.

There was a great buzz around in those days and that excitement is returning with the advent of new stars appearing on the horizon – many of them pencilling in the Irish Open to their schedule this weekend.

***************************************************

From Tony McGee in Portstewart

WHEN Shane Lowry won the Irish Open in a rain-drenched play-off at Co Louth eight years ago, many Irish golf fans asked “Shane Who?”

He had no problems pushing his way to the recorder's office like other Irish winners of the prestigious title. Lowry was an amateur then, now he is a professional.

“I came in under the radar that week,” he recalls.

“Obviously, Baltray was huge for me but it is such a long time ago. Still, it doesn't feel that I'm on tour that long but I actually am. I'll be forever grateful for the Irish Open at Baltray.”

The Offaly man has now played eight Irish Opens and the best he has done since that spectacular Baltray battle with Londoner Robert Rock was tied fifth in 2013 at Carton House. He has missed two cuts but feels that his form is coming good, again,

after missing the cut in France

last week.

“I shot two bad rounds in France – it wasn't very good but, it's funny, I felt like my game was okay,” he added.

“I did a bit of practice over the weekend and I was hitting the ball pretty good, Then when I played here, yesterday, I was pretty poor but I played 16 holes and it got better and better as it went on. Then I went out on the front nine today and played lovely.

“I drove the ball lovely and my iron play was good. I felt good on the greens, too. I have to go out every week and give my best and see where it leaves me on Sunday. If it leaves me at the top of the leaderboard I'd be more than chuffed.”

If it does, people will not be asking “Shane Who?” this time and he will have to spend some time with his fans no doubt afterwards.

That is one of the distractions of an Irishman winning his home Open Championship. It is different from playing abroad.

”It takes you an hour after finishing your round (in Ireland) taking photographs and signing autographs. You are not used to doing that. I now know how to deal with it. The Irish people only get to see us play in Ireland once a year. Why not give them that time? I think they deserve it. They are great supporters of us and great supporters of golf.”

The bearded Offaly man will have extra supporters this time. His family arrived up from the Faithful county yesterday and all are domiciled in an apartment in Portrush.

“It will be nice to chill out for the rest of the day. It's a nice day and we may go for a walk down the beach. I'll just relax and take it easy,”

he suggested.

Lowry (right) described the Portstewart track as one of the nicest he has seen. This is his first visit. He also described it as a tricky course, but said that it was a golf course one can be fairly aggressive on and make a lot of birdies.

The par fives he feels are gettable. A good drive and you are only hitting irons in, he explained.

He also reckons that the long holes will be the key to success in this championship.

“I think there are two par threes, the sixth and 15th holes, that are quite tricky but really great holes,” he said, but stopped short of forecasting what score would win on Sunday evening.

Home-based players on the PGA Irish Tour have not had a lot of success in the tournament and making his debut today will be Richard Kilpatrick from Banbridge. He has been in good form recently, winning the Ruddy Cup among other successes, and is bubbling with enthusiasm about getting out there and sampling the action.

While he may be inexperienced in terms of playing at the highest level, Kilpatrick may have pulled off a masterstroke when is comes to hiring a caddy for the week.

Fellow PGA professional, former college team-mate and Major-winning LPGA caddy, David Jones, will lug Kilpatrick's bag around Portstewart over the next few days.

Jones, a Derry native, who was formerly the PGA professional at Bushfoot, also happens to be a member at Portstewart and has cleared his schedule to caddy for Kilpatrick in the Irish Open.

“I've known Davy for years. I was starting my first year of college in America at the University of Toledo just as he was finishing his studies there” added Kilpatrick.

“Having him on the bag is going to be a huge benefit for me. I would imagine that had 90 per cent of the field known he was available for the week they'd have offered him a lot of money to work for them.

“The thing for me will be getting used to the atmosphere, to the grandstands and the corporate boxes. I've played a few rounds up here recently trying to familiarise myself with the place and how it will look during tournament week.”

Meticulous preparation, indeed.

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