Rory McIlroy might be the red-hot favourite for the 3 Irish Open but he still looks up to three Irishmen with titles he wants more than any others.
The sensational world No 8 is the highest ranked player in the field and the bookies’ fancy to race to his third professional victory on Sunday night.
Yet while he has a fleet of fast cars, millions in the bank and a beautiful blonde on his arm, he looks at Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell and sees only two Irish Open titles and four majors.
Determined to get in on the act by clinching his national open, McIlroy insisted: “Seeing Pádraig win in ‘07 to end the 25-year wait for a national victory, and to see Shane win last year, as well, it’s an exciting time for Irish golf.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a good home challenge this week and hopefully I’ll be one of those guys that can get into contention.”
McIlroy shot to superstardom in May when he finally added to his Dubai Desert Classic win of 2009 by scorching to a final round 62 to claim his first US Tour title at Quail Hollow.
He’s already guaranteed a Ryder Cup debut in October but after seeing his first major title slip through his fingers in the Open at St Andrews two weeks ago, he’s not prepared to let the Irish Open title slip away.
He said: “Winning it would mean a lot. I’ve won twice in my professional career, but to win here, your home championship, is always very, very special.
“It would definitely rank up there with one of the biggest achievements I’ve had in my career to date.
“So hopefully I can play well enough to get myself into position to do that on Sunday.”
Watching McDowell win the US Open and his former amateur foursomes partner Lowry claim the Irish Open last year has made McIlroy more impatient than ever to taste big time success.
And he admits he’d love a chance to take on Lowry down the stretch at the spectacular Killeen Course.
McIlroy said: “Shane’s definitely a better player now than he was last year at the Irish Open. He’s gained a lot more experience. He’s a more rounded player and more solid.
“He doesn’t hit as many loose shots, his short game and wedges have always been great and I think his putting’s really improved this year.
“He’s played well the last few weeks with a top 10 at Loch Lomond and then making the cut at The Open in his first major.
“I think he’s sort of in a good bit of form at the minute and I wouldn’t be surprised if he popped his head up on the leaderboard at some point this year again.
“It would be nice to go head to head with him because I never really had the chance in the amateur ranks. I don’t think I ever played him in a match or anything. It would be good.”
While he’s tipped to go on and become Ireland’s first world No 1, McIlroy is still learning the ropes as a professional.
And he confessed that he is slowly getting over the hellish second round 80 that cost him a golden opportunity to win his first major title at St Andrews.
Looking back at his golfing Black Friday and eventual third place finish, he said: “I’ve had a bit of time to think about it and reflect on it. I suppose the first couple of days when I got home after, it was quite tough, just thinking back about that Friday.
“But I’m over it now, and I realise that it was still a very, very good week. I shot three very good scores and if I could have just maybe turned that 80 into a 74 or 75 in the second round, it could have been a little bit different.
“I could have put a bit more pressure on Louis. But the way it worked out, that just didn’t happen, and even if I was to improve on that second day, Louis played so well, I don’t know if anyone could have caught him.”
Rated the 6/1 favourite with the bookies to be king in the Kingdom, McIlroy insists he’s comfortable being top dog.
He loves being the centre of attention and hopes he can produce the goods in front of massive Irish galleries in what is expected to be a birdie fest.
He explained: “I’m the top ranked player in this event, and I should be the favourite. It brings a nice little bit of added pressure just to try and perform well in front of the home crowd.
“You’ve just got to go out there and you’ve got to expect to shoot low. I mean, if you’re expecting everyone else to shoot low, you should have a good chance to go low yourself.
“So it’s going to be tough because there’s going to be a lot of players making birdies and that makes it a little bit harder to get yourself in front.
“But I think if I can go out and put my ball in the right spots off the tee, this course gives you a lot of chances to make a lot of birdies.
“You don’t have to play great out here to make the score. You just have to putt wel because the rough isn’t up that much, and you know, there’s not many fairways that are treelined and stuff like that.
“I’m not going to say you can spray it about but you can still miss a few fairways and still get away with it. I think it’s just about staying clear of the few hazards that there are out there. Like the first there’s a bit of water that cuts into the back of the green, and the par 3s are all very tough.
“I think if you play the par 3s well this week, you’re going to have a good chance and you have to take advantage of the par 5s because they are all reachable and they are all where you can make your score.”
As for McDowell, who shot the first 59 of his career in a practice round on the Valley Course at Royal Portrush a few days ago, McIlroy admits that seeing him win the US Open has helped him believe he can win a major himself.
He said: “Even if he hadn’t won, I still would have taken a lot from it, because he played great to get himself into that position. He handled himself so well under the pressure.”
A back nine duel between the two Ulstermen on Sunday afternoon would be a box office sensation but McIlroy knows he’d have his work cut out against a top class finisher.
He said: “I think any time GMac has had a chance to win a tournament, he’s always been very close. When he won in Wales recently and at Loch Lomond a couple of years ago, he played the back nine fantastically.
“When won the Ballantine’s in Korea in 08 he hit a seven-iron to a couple of feet in the playoff. He definitely knows how to get to done.”