World No.1 will need to win in the home of golf for the first time in his career if he is to successfully defend the Claret Jug this summer - and his St Andrews record suggests he might.
Not since Padraig Harrington won the Claret Jug back-to-back in 2007 and 2008 has a golfer successfully defended the Open Championship. If Rory McIlroy is to buck that trend, he’s going to have to do one of the few things he has yet to achieve in his extraordinary career: win in Scotland.
The Northern Irishman held off Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia to win his third major and first Open at Royal Liverpool last summer. The victory propelled him from eighth on the world rankings to second and was the first of three victories in an incredible four-week stretch, which also included the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship.
Still only 26, McIlroy’s meteoric rise through the ranks has seen him win in Dubai, Hong Kong, the USA, England, China and Australia - but never in Scotland.
That’s not to say he hasn’t had his chances. In 15 appearances in the home of golf - four in the Open, four in the Scottish Open, one in the Johnnie Walker Championship and six in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship - he has finished second or joint second three times and third or tied third twice.
Encouragingly for the 26-year-old’s legion of fans, he has a superb record around the Old Course. One of those aforementioned third place finishes came there in the 2010 Open when, after carding an opening round of 63 - the joint lowest round in major championship history - his challenge was derailed by a grim 80 in a weather-blighted second round.
His three runner-up finishes, meanwhile, have all come in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which includes two trips around the Old Course in addition to one each at Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.
That other third place finish on his Scottish rÈsumÈ? No prizes for guessing that it, too, came in the Alfred Dunhill Links. It happened in 2007, in just his second start as a pro, and earned McIlroy a card for the European Tour the following season.
In his last ten rounds over the Old Course, he has a stroke average of 69.2. If he brings that kind of form this summer, he’ll shoot in the region of 12-under-par, which will take some beating. In the last four Opens played in St Andrews, only two players have managed to score better than that: Tiger Woods did so in both 2000 and 2005, as did Louis Oosthuizen in 2010. In other words, the last three winners.
So, you’d have to fancy McIlroy’s chances of retaining the Open on a course he says is his ‘favourite golf course in the world’.
Speaking ahead of the final round of last year’s Alfred Dunhill Links, he said: “I love this course.
I love this place. It seems like every time I go out on this course, I am able to muster something up and shoot a good one. I have a good record around the Old Course, that’s for sure. I just feel very comfortable. A lot of the tee shots fit my eye and
I feel like I know the greens very well, which really helps.”
He wasn’t always so fond of it, mind you. In fact, he says he ‘hated’ the Old Course and thought it was ‘the worst golf course I had ever played’ during his first visit for the St Andrews Links Trophy in 2005. “But I guess it grew on me,” he added. “The more you play it and the more you learn about the course and the little nuances, you learn to appreciate it.”
That combination of confidence, affection, familiarity and form will make McIlroy a tough man to unseat in St Andrews this summer, when the Old Course stages the championship for a record 29th time.
Whoever does, ultimately, win the title will do so in full view of what has been dubbed the ‘best closing arena in golf’ by the R&A. Two grandstands down the side of the first fairway, one behind the first green, an incredible structure slinging around the 17th green and the Open’s first-ever two-tiered grandstand behind the 18th green will provide seating for up to 10,000 fans to watch the event’s climax.
That represents almost half of the total on-course seating and it has been deliberately designed this way to create a spectacular amphitheatre.
Traditionally, St Andrews Opens perform very well for the R&A given that they tend to draw large audiences. The 2010 event, for example, attracted a total crowd of just over 201,000, the sixth biggest attendance in Open history.
It goes without saying that the organisers will hope for a similar number this year, particularly given the attendance struggles they have endured in recent times. Last year’s championship at Hoylake was down almost 30,000 spectators on the previous Open at the Wirral venue in 2006, whilst the 2013 championship at Muirfield attracted just 142,036 fans - down 11.5% on the 160,595 who attended the last Open there in 2002 and massively short of the 170,000 the R&A had forecast.
The cost of admission, of course, remains an issue and the R&A’s decision to put an extra £5 on the price of an adult day ticket this year has done nothing to pacify those who feel they are being priced out of the event. However, Scottish Club Golfer understands that attendees will see large reductions in other areas this year, with significant savings on food and drink to be introduced, bringing down the overall cost of watching the re-branded event - watch out for the new-look blue seats - in person.
• The 144th Open Championship takes place over the Old Course in St Andrews from July 16-19.