British Open 2011: Rory McIlroy is in the spotlight at Royal St. George’s


Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy smiles on the practice green ahead of the British Open at Royal St George's. (Matt Dunham/AP)

The British Open begins Thursday in England, the very country that boasts the world’s two top-ranked golfers, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, respectively. The year’s third major championship will unfold on the bumps and knobs of Royal St. George’s, named for the martyr whose story is told so often here that Westwood said, “You can’t get more English than that.”

It should follow, then, that Donald and Westwood — not to mention countrymen Ian Poulter and Paul Casey — would be receiving the attention headed into this year’s event. And yet the biggest stir leading up to the first shot may have came Monday afternoon, when tournament officials mistakenly posted a practice round time for one Rory McIlroy.

In fact, McIlroy — scarcely seen on a golf course since his U.S. Open victory last month at Congressional — was practicing, but he did so at Royal County Down back in his native Northern Ireland. But the scramble that began — photographers and fans getting into place – showed that, with Tiger Woods sitting out a second straight major because of leg injuries, there is one name in golf that suddenly matters more than the others.

“Obviously, Rory is on the forefront of a lot of people’s minds, and rightly so,” Donald said. “He was impressive in the U.S. Open, and winning majors is a big deal, and he did it and he did it in great fashion. I’m sure a lot of the attention is on him — and maybe a little bit more of the pressure, as well.”

That would seem to be true for someone who, just a month after winning his first major at 22, has endured early, and some would say absurd, speculation about whether he could win 18 more to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s all-time mark. McIlroy did show up Tuesday to play nine holes of practice — sticking with his ritual of playing a major championship course twice the week before, then arriving for two nine-hole rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday. He acknowledged that what happened at Congressional — when he blistered the Bethesda course in a record 16 under par to win by eight shots — was life-changing, but embraced those changes, particularly as it relates to the challenge here.

“I’m the sort of person that likes to have people watching,” McIlroy said. “I like to have a little bit of a buzz in the atmosphere around the group, and I’ll enjoy it.”

That, then, leaves a slew of players — who a month earlier would have been considered more accomplished — lying in wait. A year ago, the focus coming into the British Open at St. Andrews may well have been on Westwood, who seemed on the cusp of finally breaking through in a major. The previous year, he had missed a playoff with Stewart Cink and Tom Watson at Turnberry because of a three-putt bogey at the 72nd hole. Still, he was third at the British, third at the PGA, and second at the 2010 Masters. He seemed, even at 37, to be coming into his prime.

Westwood, who said Tuesday his “form is right where I’d like it to be,” doesn’t bother with such evaluations.

“People would have said I was coming into my prime 10 years ago, and then I dropped to 270th in the world,” Westwood said. “So what’s the point in guessing whether you’re at your prime or not? I don’t particularly think it’s an age thing, either. I think so many players play well into their early- to mid-40s just recently that there’s no point in thinking about it.”

Donald, 33, might have more reason to clamor for attention this week. When he tied for 45th at Congressional, it marked the first time since January he finished outside the top 10. His response: a victory his next time out, in the rain-shortened Scottish Open over the weekend. Even as McIlroy’s star has skyrocketed, no one has played more consistent golf this season than Donald. The victory in Scotland was his third of the year, a run that started when he beat the game’s best at the Accenture Match Play Championship. Thus, he has proven to himself and the world — though absent a major championship — that he can close tournaments.

“I hadn’t really won for a number of years, and it was becoming tougher and tougher to win,” Donald said. “But as soon as you get that one win, it kind of opened up the door, gave me a lot of confidence.”

Still, McIlroy is the kid who arrives here having kicked open the door. The last player to win the U.S. and British opens in the same summer: Woods, in 2000, the first two legs of his unprecedented run of four straight majors. In some corners, such runs seem all but expected for McIlroy now, fairly or not. And so players such as Donald and Westwood — worldwide winners, among the best in the world — are being asked if they’ll ever win even one.

“You’ve got to want it still,” Westwood said. “That’s the main thing.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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