PORTRUSH • The British Open returns to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years this week at Royal Portrush, giving Rory McIlroy the opportunity to end his five-year Major drought on home soil.
The four-time Major champion has not lifted one of golf's big four trophies since winning the 2014 US PGA Championship, but is the bookmakers' favourite to get his hands on the Claret Jug after finishing tied for second a year ago at Carnoustie, two strokes behind Italian Francesco Molinari.
McIlroy has been a picture of consistency this season, claiming two titles including the prestigious Players' Championship while recording 11 top-10 finishes.
He admitted that it would be a dream come true to triumph in the 148th Open Championship at a club where he fired a course-record 61 as a 16-year-old.
"If I'm being honest, it would obviously mean the world to me," said the Northern Irishman, who won the 2014 Open at Hoylake.
"But just like winning Hoylake meant the world to me as well, just getting my hands on that Claret Jug again would be a huge accomplishment."
World No. 3 McIlroy, who won the 2016 Irish Open at the K Club just outside Dublin, was keen to play down the pressure of playing in front of his home fans.
Former Royal Portrush course record set by Rory McIlroy, aged 16, before the course was changed.
"I think it's going to feel normal. It's going to feel like just another Open Championship," said the 30-year-old.
"I've played in a few of them now. I know what to expect. Might be a little louder.
"Atmosphere might be a bit different, but the objective is the same - to go there and play good golf and hopefully give myself a chance to win the Claret Jug."
He has signalled an attacking policy, saying he hopes to use his driver liberally having enjoyed success with the strategy last year.
The par-71 Portrush measures a whisker over 7,300 yards, though links courses generally play shorter than their yardages due to firm fairways that afford plenty of roll.
Long hitters such as McIlroy need not hit drivers often, but it can be advantageous to do so.
"Carnoustie last year I didn't envisage hitting that many drivers," he said.
"But I think what they've started to do at Open Championships, to accommodate spectators, they've taken a lot of the gorse bushes away, so Carnoustie last year I hit drivers everywhere.
"I'm not expecting to do that at Portrush (but) it might be a case of like Carnoustie last year where I (arrive) thinking I'm only going to hit three or four drivers during the round but, in actual fact, it could be more like seven or eight, or nine or 10."
Among the favourites this week is red-hot world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and a resurgent Tiger Woods.
But the fans will roar loudest for McIlroy and his compatriots, including 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke, who will have the honour of hitting the first tee shot of the tournament early tomorrow at his home course - he lives in the town of Portrush.
Koepka's recent Major record is remarkable - he has won four in his last nine appearances, finishing first and second twice apiece in the last four he has played.
He missed Carnoustie a year ago through injury, but his British Open record has been good, with two top-10 finishes from five appearances and a best showing of tied sixth in 2017.
Woods will play professionally in Northern Ireland for the first time as he seeks a 16th Major to close in on Jack Nicklaus' record of 18.
The 43-year-old American capped one of sport's greatest comebacks by winning the Masters in April, despite previously slipping out of the top 1,000 in the world rankings after years of struggling with back injuries and poor form.
Woods' reimposed threat at the top of the game was confirmed at Carnoustie last year when he took the lead on the back nine in the final round, only to finish in a tie for sixth, three shots behind Molinari.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS