Any invitation to the links known as Royal Portrush on the Co. Antrim coastline is to be savored, and to accept such an invite the week before the real start of the golfing season was always going to be special.

You know, as I have said here before, that you are entering a very special place when the entrance to the town is marked by a sign welcoming you to the home of major winners Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Fred Daly.

They know their golf in this northern corner of the island of Ireland and they know how to talk about their chosen sport, a welcome offering just days before the Masters at Augusta and the first major of the year.

For those of us mad about the game, the annual television pilgrimage to Augusta via Sky Sports and the BBC is the real start of the golfing season.

Sure, there have been a few games since Christmas, but it is all what I call cobweb golf, dusting the clubs and the swing down after the winter hiatus and preparing for these stretching days when the clocks change and summertime arrives.

Of course a trip North for 18 holes at Portrush last week had to involve talk of the Masters, and when you talk golf in that part of the world these days only one name really matters –Rory McIlroy.

The event at Portrush – a media day hosted by Paul McLean of McLean’s bookmakers – was attended by some of the province’s leading sports presenters and journalists including the great Adrian Logan, whom many of you will know from his days as GAA correspondent for Ulster television station UTV.

Tyrone fan Logie and his regular cameraman sidekick Albert Kirk – the man who was once bylined as Albert Kirk in Albuquerque during the 1986 World Cup – are self-declared Rory fans.

And, like so many of their colleagues in Portrush last week, they don’t share the view that McIlroy has lost the run of himself in the past 12 months after splitting from his Dublin-based management company in the wake of his multi-million dollar deal with Nike.

The McIlroy spoken about in the Dunluce room at Portrush golf club, almost in direct line with Clarke’s seaside home, is a young man who still remembers where he comes from and those who helped him get to the top.

The lads spoke of a Rory McIlroy who played golf with his old mates on some of Ulster’s lesser-known courses during a recent visit home.

They spoke of a Rory McIlroy who regularly flies his mates to some of the biggest sporting events in the world, golf included.

They spoke of Rory McIlroy the rugby fan who will have been delighted by Ireland’s recent Six Nations success and tormented by Ulster’s heartbreaking loss to Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarterfinal at the new look Ravenhill on Saturday.

More importantly, though, those who played golf on the testing links that honed Clarke’s swing for his British Open win a couple of summers ago wanted to talk about Rory McIlroy the golfer.

To a man, they are convinced that Rory McIlroy can contend at Augusta this coming weekend and finally land the most coveted green jacket in world sport.

Their optimism, outlined before McIlroy’s 74 at the Houston Open last Saturday it has to be said, was based on his performance if not his final joint second finish at Bay Hill on his previous tournament outing.

Those who have followed McIlroy since his first appearances in the local media say his game is good enough right now to win at Augusta National but, more crucially, they also believe his head is ready for the challenge presented in the deep South.

They do know what they are talking about as they have spent a lifetime up close and personal with Rory. So when they say he is worth backing for the Masters this week then I, for one, am more than happy to believe them.

I also hope my tenner on Rory to triumph, at odds of 8/1, fares better than my other bet last weekend, also fuelled by talk around the dinner table in Royal Portrush.

Sitting beside me for the course of the evening was a gentleman from McLean’s bookmakers by the name of Adrian Eastwood – and if that name sounds familiar it’s because his dad is Barney Eastwood, the legendary boxing manager and bookie who made Barry McGuigan into a world champion.

Adrian grew up the family business and knows so much about golf that he is currently leading the European Tour’s fantasy golf league with his tipping.

As a result his opinion on the Masters was highly sought after over dinner, as were his opinions on the Aintree Grand National, then two days away.

Like his dad, Adrian Eastwood is well able to talk and has all the patter that goes with the gift of the gab. So my ears did pay attention when he offered a little double as a tip for the golf and racing majors.

Suggesting TeaForThree as a Grand National contender, Adrian suggested a double with Zach Johnson for the Masters, a combination that offered returns of a staggering $5,000 for my $30 online investment with Paddy Power on Saturday morning.

I say offered because TeaForThree didn’t win the National. The horse didn’t even finish the race and my double – and that $5,000 windfall – fell at the same hurdle.

I may still back Zach before the first ball is hit in the shadows of the magnolias this Saturday, but I really wanted that double to come good.

And then I’d have said thank you very much Mr. Eastwood! Sure you’d have to.