Golf’s new Golden Boy Rory McIlroy was mobbed as he finalized his preparations for the British Open at Sandwich on Wednesday.
The US Open champion plays his first round of competitive golf since Congressional just after nine o’clock local time on Thursday morning.
McIlroy is out with former British champion Ernie Els and his American buddy Rickie Fowler as he begins his bid to win a second Major.
Already all eyes have been on the 22-year-old from Holywood in the County Down ahead of this week’s third Major of the year with thousands of fans waiting as he came off the 18th after a final practice round early on Wednesday morning.
“This is a challenge, but I like a challenge. We will see how it goes,” said McIlroy as fans crowded around him outside the clubhouse at the Royal St George’s course in Sandwich, Kent.
“I’ve always said I’m more comfortable playing on a course like Congressional.”
McIlroy and fellow Ulsterman Darren Clarke took £20 each off South African Major winners Charl Schwartzel and defending British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen in their competitive ‘practice’ round.
“It was a tough test. The wind is pretty strong and this is the hardest wind direction,” said McIlroy after the round.
“It’s good I’ve been able to play in windy conditions last week and then in the opposite wind now. I’ve prepared really well the last 10 days to two weeks, working on shots that I need.”
McIlroy finished third in the British Open at St Andrews last year when a second round 80 ruined his chances of winning after a splendid 63 on the opening day.
Asked how his game compares this year with that erratic form, McIlroy said: “Physically I’m a lot stronger, but mentally a lot better.
Visit Rory McIlroy's page for more stories, pics and his bio
Rory McIlroy to tee off with Ernie Els and Rickie Fowler at British Open
Rory McIlroy says his biggest challenge this year was winning girlfriend back
“It was a good lesson to learn and if I come up against that wind again hopefully I will deal with it better.
“I’m really happy with my game and I can’t wait to get back out there and get at it. I’ve played three rounds here now and I feel I know the course the best I can.”
The Sandwich course was practically deserted when Clarke and McIlroy teed off just after 6.30am on Wednesday morning.
“I just thought I’d get out there and try to keep it a little bit low key - not that I can do that anymore,” laughed McIlroy afterwards.
“It was funny - I looked at my watch going down 14 and it hadn’t even got to nine o’clock. I can understand why Tiger has to go out at that time.”
After playing nine holes with his dad Gerry at Royal County Down on Monday night, McIlroy is ready for the test ahead this weekend.
He said: “The first 10 days after winning the US Open, it was a bit hectic trying to see everyone and going here, there and everywhere.
“But the last 10 days have been good - I’ve got back into my routine and been practicing a lot. I feel as if my preparation has been really good.
“I knew that the time for reflection wasn’t really at this point of the season, it’s at the end - I’ve got to forget about what happened three weeks ago and just try to win another golf tournament.”
He also admitted that he has been stunned by the reaction to his US Open win. “I didn’t realize how much of a fuss it would create or how much of a buzz,” said McIlroy.
“The support that I’ve had from people back home, from everyone all over the world, has been pretty overwhelming. It’s a very nice feeling to have that support walking onto the golf course.
“I’ve already sort of noticed over the past three weeks it has been a bit of a life-changing experience and it’s just something I’m going to have to deal with.
“But this is what I’ve always wanted to do - I’ve always wanted to be a successful golfer and be one of the best players in the world and to win major championships.
“If I have to put up with a few things along the way, then I’m fine with that.”