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SPOTLIGHT

Former winner McIlroy has home support to count on at Royal Portrush

But a slew of top pros stands in his way, especially Rolex Testimonee Brooks Koepka who has a caddie who knows the course well.

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Rolex Testimonee Brooks Koepka at the 146th Open.

HE courts controversy and enjoys it as much as excelling in the game itself.

Rory McIlroy was born to be a golfer. And a good one at that.

Born in Holywood, County Down in Northern Ireland, his father Gerry, as a scratch handicapper took him, aged six, to the nearby Holywood Golf Club virtually every day for basic lessons.

As a kid, he received a golf club as a present which he took with him to sleep, ensuring that he held it with the right grip.

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His father held down several jobs and his mother, Rosie, worked extra shifts at the local 3M plant to earn additional income for their only child's golf development.

The 30-year-old, now estimated to be worth more than US$130 million and who turned pro in 2007, is also a four-time Major winner, including the 2014 British Open.

While golfing successes have brought him deep admiration from global fans, McIlroy can also rub them on the wrong side with his sudden antics and vitriolic outbursts.

Once he described the Ryder Cup as "an exhibition" and received a backlash from then Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie. At the 2015 WGC Cadillac Championship, after hitting his ball into the water on a par-five hole, he threw a club into the pond.

All said, McIlroy is good stuff for the media because he creates news, and laces most of it with controversy that is digested by readers and followers.

Currently, the biggest news he is aiming to generate is a Major victory for the Claret Jug at his home country in Northern Ireland in the form of the 148th British Open, which tees off at Royal Portrush from July 18 to 21.

The Open is returning to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.The jewel in Northern Ireland's crown, the famous stretch of land situated on Antrim's north coast has a fearsome reputation of being one of the toughest links courses around.

Underlining that truism is the fact that when The Open was last staged at the course in 1951, only two players finished the 80th Open under par, winner Englishman Max Faulkner on minus-3 and Argentinian Antonio Cerda on minus-1.

Shot 61 when only 16

Contrast that with what McIlroy once did in a qualifying tournament at Royal Portrush, a magical 11-under 61 buoyed by an eagle and nine birdies when he was only 16.

The Irishman's journey to the pinnacle of golf actually gained real traction after this record (previous best was a 64) in 2005. Watching that footage, McIlroy said last year: "I look like a normal 16-year-old. I walk like one and look like one. Whenever I look back at Royal Portrush, links golf and my development I always think about that round of golf.

"As a 16-year-old, it takes a lot of confidence to be dented. I had confidence and cockiness, and sometimes I think I need to rediscover that a little bit even now."

He describes the Royal Portrush course (with some changes) as effectively a blank page to the top players, a journey into the unknown. And he draws motivation from this statement of intent: "I relish being champion golfer on home soil.

"I shot 62 at Quail Hollow in 2010 on the old set-up and then they went and redesigned it. I went back in 2015 and shot 61 on the new course. I hold the record on the Portrush old course, but it would be special to come back at The Open and break it on the new one."

But, familiarity or not, it will not be a cruise to glory for 10-1 favourite McIlroy. For standing in his way are a slew of top golfers who are used to the big occasions. Top on the list is world No. 1 and Rolex Testimonee Brooks Koepka, 29, the runner-up at last month's US Open, to countryman Gary Woodland and this year's US PGA champion.

The British bookmakers' favourite at 6-1, Koepka has the best all-round game, spiced by a devastating driving average of 309 yards, and a caddie in Northern Irishman Ricky Elliott who knows the Royal Portrush course like the back of his hand.

Originally from Portrush itself, Elliott, who is on the bag for Koepka for five years now, was a promising youngster who had won several junior titles and represented Ireland in many amateur events, counting among them several great showings at Royal Portrush.

No Major is complete without the mention of the phenomenal Rolex Testimonee Tiger Woods, injuries or long lay-offs notwithstanding. This year's Masters winner is certainly the crowd favourite as he chases fellow Rolex Testimonee, the legendary Jack Nicklaus' Major record of 18 titles. Three behind, the 43-year-old still believes he can track the record down especially so because he loves the links.

But proven computer model Sportsline, which called Koepka's US PGA victory and Gary Woodland's surprise triumph at the US Open, has ruled out Woods, even stating that he would finish outside the top 10 although bookmakers have listed him 12-1. On the same rating is former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who has the game, talent and temperament to deliver on his day.

Possible surpise

One who could surprise is world No. 9 American Patrick Cantlay, a 25-1 longshot. The former world No. 1 amateur has had a sensational season so far, winning the Memorial Tournament with an astonishing final-round 64 and racking up eight top-10 finishes in 15 starts so far.

Then there are the usual suspects, namely Rolex Testimonees Jordan Spieth, defending champion Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas.

One other golfer who put himself into reckoning is Spaniard Jon Rahm, the Rolex Testimonee who shot an eight-under 62 in the final round to win the Irish Open for the second time in three years earlier this month.

However, McIlroy aside, there is another capable favourite in homester Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion. Making a welcome return to his home course at Royal Portrush, McDowell only secured his spot after making a 30-foot putt on the 18th hole at the Canadian Open earlier this month to finish in the top 10.

Another Northern Irishman who has an outside chance is Darren Clarke, whose biggest victory came in the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St George's in England, his first Major win after more than 20 years and 54 attempts. At 50 years, Clarke has rich experience but the question is whether he is mentally and physically prepared for the big event.

In fact, he was in the news for all the wrong reasons recently when he was assessed a two-stroke penalty when his caddie attempted to remove a bird feeder that was in the way at Warren Golf course in Notre Dame, Indiana.

It left him fuming because his bogey was revised to a triple-bogey for a 73 round that preceded a 72 and found him missing the cut at the US Senior Open.

But Clarke, who met his first wife Heather (who died of cancer in 2006) at Portrush, and after spending some time in Berkshire, England, he and his two sons have moved back to be near the British Open venue at County Antrium. So he would be a worthy sentimental favourite with the Irish folk.