With Tiger Woods on the sideline for a second straight major, Rory is the story at this year's British Open. Rory McIlroy, a 22-year-old sensation from Northern Ireland who won last month's U.S. Open by eight shots, is getting Tiger-like attention in Sandwich, England.
He hasn't played a competitive round in the three weeks since his record-setting 16-under par performance at Congressional. That hasn't stopped oddsmakers and fellow players from making McIlroy the favorite to win a second straight major.
All eyes will be on McIlroy this week, and he doesn't mind.
"I'm the sort of person that likes to have people watching," McIlroy said this week. "I like to have a little bit of a buzz in the atmosphere around the group, and I'll enjoy it. It's not going to be the first time that I've played in front of big crowds. Last time I played a competitive round of golf, I had a pretty big crowd following me."
McIlroy has made a habit of contending in major championships lately. At last year's British Open, he tied for third despite a second-round 80. He finished one shot back at the PGA Championship. And he infamously led the Masters before shooting a final-round 80.
He finally broke through at the U.S. Open.
That sparked many comparisons to Woods, who racked up his first major when he was 21. But Jack Nicklaus, who knows a thing or two about winning majors, said McIlroy needs a little more success before he lives up to the next Tiger Woods hyperbole.
"Don't anoint him as the crown prince yet," Nicklaus told the BBC on Sunday. "He has won one major. When he starts to win two, three or four, then you can say he's the guy we've got to watch, period. But until that time comes, he's one of a group of talented players that has got an opportunity to win."
None from that group has more expectations than McIlroy. He has quickly become one of those players expected to be on the first page of the leaderboard at every major. He is expected to talk to the media after every round, good or bad. He is expected to win.
"This is what I've always wanted to do," McIlroy said. "I've always wanted to be a successful golfer and be one of the best players in the world and to win major championships.
"If I have to put up with a few things along the way, then I'm fine with that."
What is a links course?
Links courses began in Scotland and are prevalent there and in Britain and Ireland. They have certain characteristics:
• They are built along the seaside.
• They are laid out naturally. If the land is bumpy or has severe slopes, then that's what the course looks like. The rough is made from natural seaside grasses.
• The course is never watered. The only water it gets is from rain.
• Bunkers are all over the course and very deep. That's not to punish the players. It is so the sea breeze doesn't blow the sand away.
• The first hole starts at the clubhouse, and the ninth hole is farthest away from it. The back nine routes back toward the clubhouse.
They said it
• "When I come back from Sandwich, I feel like I can't play a lick." — Tom Watson, five-time British Open winner (none at Royal St. George's) on the course
• "Dead last.'' — Mark Calcavecchia, on where Royal St. George's ranks among the nine British Open courses
• "That course tests every club in your bag and every shot you have. A lot of courses you go out there and hit driver, 8-iron, driver, 8-iron. That will never happen at Royal St. George's.'' — Ben Curtis, who won the British Open in 2003
Curtis was a PGA Tour rookie in 2003, the last time the British Open was held at Royal St. George's. He was ranked 396th in the world and making his first start in a major. He had never finished among the top 10 of any PGA tournament. However, he shot a final-round 69 and held off players including Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn, who double bogeyed No. 16 and bogeyed No. 17 to fall behind Curtis. Curtis became only the sixth player since 1900 to win the British Open on his first try. He is also believed to be the first player to win the first major he has ever played since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open. Curtis, 34, is eligible to play in the Open until he is 65. Since 2003, Curtis has won only twice more, both in 2006. He has not won another major. This year, he did not qualify for the Masters or U.S. Open, and he is currently ranked 194th in the world.
'Like playing on the surface of the moon'
How wild and crazy is Royal St. George's? It is the only course on the British Open rotation that boasts the first winner not to break 80 over four rounds (J.H. Taylor, 1894) and the first winner to shoot in the 60s all four rounds (Greg Norman, 1993). There is no such thing as a flat lie on Royal St. George's. "Almost like playing on the surface of the moon,'' Englishman Justin Rose said. "I'd swear the Royal Air Force used a couple of the fairways for bombing runs," Norman said in 1993. A drive straight down the middle doesn't mean a golfer will be hitting out of the fairway for his second shot. "You could literally hit it down the middle of the fairway, and the guy you're playing with could hit it right in the junk," 2001 Open champ David Duval said. "You get down there and there's one ball in the fairway, and it's not yours. You had balls rolling off sideways, and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you execute a shot like you're supposed to and you get up there and you've got nothing."