Local hero McIlroy does not feel like centre of attention at Portrush

All eyes will be on Rory McIlroy at Royal Portrush, but he is trying to keep things low key ahead of the 148th Open Championship.

Rory McIlroy says he isn't the centre of attention despite the tournament being held in Northern Ireland.   -  AFP

Rory McIlroy does not feel like he is the centre of attention at Royal Portrush this week and insists he will treat the 148th Open Championship the same as any other.

It has been 68 years since golf's oldest major was played on Portrush's Dunluce links and there is an understandable intrigue about local favourite McIlroy around the venue.

The Northern Irishman set Portrush's course record as a fresh-faced 16-year-old in 2005 and is aiming to end a five-year major drought on home soil.

McIlroy will undoubtedly draw plenty of eyes when play begins on Thursday and has spoken in the past of struggling with the attention when playing at the Irish Open.

But he is planning to draw on the support of a partisan home crowd.

"I think it's probably easier this week because it's such a big tournament. You've got the best players in the world here and I don't feel like I'm the centre of attention," he said.

"I'm from Northern Ireland and I'm playing at home, but I don't see myself as that centre of attention, I guess. 

"I'm here to enjoy myself. Hopefully it doesn't take another 68 years for the tournament to come back here.

"But at the same time, I might not get an opportunity to play an Open Championship here again. You never know what happens. I'm really just treating it as a wonderful experience and one that I really want to enjoy.

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"I'm going to love being out there and having the crowds and having the support. If that can't help you, then nothing can."

As well as his own local knowledge, McIlroy has another ace up his sleeve in the shape of caddie Harry Diamond, who is also a Northern Ireland native. 

McIlroy believes Diamond, a friend since childhood who was best man at his wedding, possesses a more intimate knowledge of Portrush than he does, while accepting the 61 he shot 14 years ago counts for little due to the changes made to the course in the intervening years.

"I think that's one of the things people don't realise, Harry has played more rounds of golf on this golf course than I have, and definitely more competitive rounds," McIlroy added.

"He's just as comfortable on this golf course as I am. So that is a big help this week.

"Harry's experience around here, he's probably played this place more times than I have, not that I don't let him have any say any other weeks, but I think with his experience around here, my ear will be a little sharper to what he has to say.

"This golf course has changed so much since 2005 when I shot the 61. It's a different par, different holes. There's a lot of holes that have been lengthened. There's been a par five turned into a par four.

"I think this week, [rainy] conditions like this, then you're looking at 67, 68 is a good score. [Clear] conditions like I played it last night, then you could probably potentially see someone shoot a 63, 64, 65."

-'U-turn fuelled by fear of regret'-

McIlroy admits the fear of regret fuelled his change of heart over competing at the Olympics.

The Northern Irishman is on home soil for this week's 148th Open Championship, having caused a stir with comments he made at the same major three years ago.

At Royal Troon, ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, McIlroy suggested he would not even bother to watch the golf competition, which ended up being won by Ryder Cup team-mate Justin Rose.

Despite his dismissive tone then, McIlroy - who initially cited the Zika virus as the reason for his absence from Brazil - had clearly shifted his stance when he addressed the issue at Royal Portrush on Wednesday as he now has Tokyo 2020 firmly in his sights.

"I think personally I needed to do a lot of inner thought and ask, 'Is this important to me? Why do I want to play it? Who do I want to represent?' All that sort of stuff," he said, with his decision apparently complicated by whether he would turn out for Ireland or Great Britain.

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"At the start whenever I was thinking of playing the Olympics, I think I let other people's opinions of me weigh on that decision. And at the end of the day, it's my decision. I can't please everyone.

"The only people that really care about who I play for, who I represent, don't mean anything to me. I don't care about them.

"So at the end of the day, I think with where golf is, with it being part of the Olympic movement, I think if I had to look back on my career and not played in one, I probably would have regretted it. 

"So that was part of the reason I wanted to go, for the experience, as well. It's going to be - it's a wonderful experience. I've never done anything like that before.

"And it's in Japan. I enjoy Japan. I enjoy the people. I enjoy the food. So it will be a nice week."

The 30-year-old is going in search of a second Claret Jug and fifth major, having not won one of golf's four landmark events since 2014.