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All eyes on Rory McIlroy at quirky Royal St. George's

Rory McIlroy, practice round, 2011 Open Championship
Andrew Couldridge/Zuma Press
Rory McIlroy hasn't played a competitive round since winning the U.S. Open by eight shots.

SANDWICH, England — Rory McIlroy has given us many reasons to believe in him on the eve of this week's 140th British Open at Royal St. George's. Perhaps the most encouraging sign for his fans was what he verbally confirmed Tuesday.

"I'm the sort of person," McIlroy said, "that likes to have people watching."

That's nice, because the only people watching him this week are the ones with a pulse. Is Rory McIlroy up for saving golf? Can he do it when everyone fully expects him to? No pressure — we're just wondering.

McIlroy's U.S. Open theatrics at Congressional — an eight-stroke win over Jason Day — were so enthusiastically received that he became the golf equivalent of Oprah handing out Volkswagens, but now we want more. Can Rory keep on going? Will he leverage one victory into the next, like his onetime idol, Tiger Woods, once did?

With Woods again sitting out to rest his injured leg, McIlroy's emergence and its meaning is merely the biggest headline going into the year's third major.

Lee Westwood, 38, is still aiming for his first major championship victory. So is world No. 1 Luke Donald. Both would love to win their first major on home soil, and Donald, whose short game is the envy of the Tour, may be the right man on the right course this week — to listen to players, caddies and the press tell it.

That's in part due to the quirkiness of St. George's, where balls carom off the fairway mounding, and greens are more severe than at most other Open courses. Variable wind directions can alter strategy 180 degrees and leave players gnashing their teeth. No one will be able to play the course without drama, making short-game wizardry even more important than usual.

"We've been playing since the weekend, trying to see it in every wind," said Miguel Rivera, Charley Hoffman's caddie. "It changes dramatically day to day."

"You've got to be able to control the flight of your ball here, more so than in the States," said Ben Curtis, the surprise winner at St. George's in 2003. "And you've got to figure out how much roll you're going to get after the ball lands."

Phil Mickelson, 41, hasn't had a top-10 at the British Open since he finished third at Troon in 2004, but he's making noise about having found a breakthrough, perhaps, on the slower British greens. Can he make some kind of mark in this storied tournament before his career is over? He thrives on being written off.

"I'm entering this year with a fresh start," Mickelson said.

Graeme McDowell, last year's U.S. Open champion, has been quiet in 2011 but seems to be lurking around the lead deeper and deeper into tournaments.

Day, 23, is trying to climb the final rung after a T2 at the Masters and solo second at the U.S. Open. Alert bettors could have had him at 40-to-1 odds to win earlier this week, a nice payout for a not-so-crazy outcome.

Americans have not won a major since Mickelson at the 2010 Masters, and, uh-oh, the press have begun asking about it. Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Nick Watney and Bubba Watson are among the best hopes for the stars and stripes, but Curtis's victory eight years ago reminds us of one of golf's elemental truths: It's almost impossible to predict which player will pop up and have a career week.

When he was in his prime, Woods inspired a rare kind of bet: Tiger vs. the Field. No one is talking about McIlroy, with his three career wins, in such certain terms, although he isn't shying away from his new leading role.

"They can make the [Woods] comparisons," McIlroy said.

Told that there had been two separate bets of 20,000 pounds on him to win, and asked if it was the act of shrewd or desperate men, McIlroy said with a laugh, "I'll go for the first option." He has stuck to his schedule — not playing a competitive round in the three-week stretch between the U.S. and British Opens — despite second-guessers. He has tried to keep distractions to a minimum.

"The first 10 days after winning the U.S. Open, it was a bit hectic trying to see everyone and going here, there and everywhere," he said. "But the last 10 days has been good. I've got back into my routine, been practicing a lot. I was here last week for a couple of days and got two good practice rounds in. So I feel as if my preparation has been really good coming in here."

With his every move magnified, shown on TV, replayed, analyzed, Woods in his prime not only played well, he hit new highs. That's a rare talent. More common is what happened to McIlroy when he followed his winning, final-round 62 at Quail Hollow with a one-year dry spell. Louis Oosthuizen cruised to a seven-shot victory at St. Andrews last summer, but other than winning the Africa Open at the start of this year, Oosthuizen hasn't made much noise since.

"You know how the game is; I'm just trying to get it in that same rhythm I had going into the Open last year," he said. "And it took longer than expected."

McIlroy and his fans hope to keep dancing as if no one changed the music.

 

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