Lynch: Rory won't be drawn into sentimental narrative before British Open

Ian Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Lynch: Rory won't be drawn into sentimental narrative before British Open

2019 British Open

Lynch: Rory won't be drawn into sentimental narrative before British Open

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PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — For most of his press conference Wednesday at Royal Portrush, Rory McIlroy exhibited skills more common to a prizefighter than a golfer, ducking and weaving his way around a series of questions designed to lead him into the very corner he has spent his entire adult life avoiding.

It began with the moderator, who asked McIlroy to speak about the emotions he will be feeling on the first tee Thursday as he contests a major championship in his native Northern Ireland. The world No. 3 and tournament favorite noted that both Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell have longer and deeper relationships with Royal Portrush than he, a deflection softened with a few memories about visits here with his dad.

“Delighted to be a part of it,” he offered.

Another questioner suggested that his goal this week was to “defend the home turf” and end the American winning streak in majors. “That’s not why I’m here this week,” McIlroy quickly replied.

The chum kept being thrown on the water, the prey kept declining to bite.

Was this 148th Open akin to the cauldron of a Ryder Cup? No.

Has he prepared differently than at prior Opens for this most special week? No.

Would his caddie, Harry Diamond, play amateur psychologist to help him with the pressure? “You’ve got the best players in the world here, and I don’t feel like I’m the center of attention,” McIlroy answered, almost believably.

The four-time major winner, who grew up an hour away near Belfast, was indisputably the center of attention Wednesday afternoon, when he played a blustery practice round in the company of Justin Thomas. The grandstand surrounding the first tee erupted into applause when he arrived, igniting a ripple of cheers and good wishes that followed him around the Dunluce links.

As he strolled toward the 6th green, I asked McIlroy just how conscious he is of attempts to place him in a larger role at this Open than mere competitor, to make him a talisman of sorts in whom the hopes of two divided communities might be jointly invested.

“That’s a story right? They’re trying to create a sort of narrative around….” He paused.

That you’re playing for peace? To unite a people?

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I’m playing for me. I’ve always said that. I’m not in this game to win things for other people. I’m trying to fulfill my own ambitions. The same as I go to any other Open Championship, I’m trying to put my name on that Claret Jug again.”

But it’s not like any other Open, is it?

“Yeah it is,” he insisted.

It doesn’t feel different?

“No, not really. It might be different tomorrow,” he said with a laugh, “but the last couple of days haven’t been.”

Rory McIlroy putts on the 5th green during a practice round of The Open Championship golf tournament at Royal Portrush Golf Club – Dunluce Course. (Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports)

Whatever local pride and sentimentality fuels this Open at Royal Portrush, McIlroy remains a lone wolf, unwilling to be claimed as a spoil by any faction in Northern Ireland, even sports fans. That is the undercurrent in the long-running conversation about whether he would represent Ireland or Britain in the Olympics. He addressed that again too in his press conference. “The people that really care about who I play for, who I represent, don’t mean anything to me,” he said. “I don’t care about them.”

The lone wolf would love to win a second Open on Sunday and break a five-year drought in the majors. But he knows that only one victory will emphatically reshape his legacy, and that opportunity comes next April in Augusta, Georgia.

“I’m just treating this like any other Open Championship. I’ve played well here for the last few years. I’ve played well on this golf course. So I’ve just got to go out and hit the shots and stay in the present,” McIlroy said, finally fighting his interrogators to a draw. “If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, hopefully by Sunday night that will be good enough.”

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