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McIlroy ready to face soaring expectations at Royal St. George's

Rory McIlroy, Tuesday practice round, 2011 Open Championship
Paul Childs/Zuma Press
Rory McIlroy is playing for the first time since winning by eight shots at the U.S. Open.

SANDWICH, England — Rory McIlroy's credentials — three pro wins, one major title, incorrigible hair — might not be Tiger-like. But the 22-year-old's first press conference since his remarkable run at Congressional last month most definitely was.

As McIlroy took the podium in the interview room at Royal St. George's Tuesday afternoon, he found a mass of reporters scrambling for seats; many were relegated to the back wall. Camera shutters clicked incessantly, quickening with McIlroy's every smile and stammer. Playing the role of Woods's ubiquitous manager, Mark Steinberg, was McIlroy's ubiquitous manager, Chubby Chandler. You couldn't miss him. He was the full-bodied man in the grey suit glad-handing writers as they streamed through an entrance flanked by blue curtains.

"I didn't realize how much of a fuss it would create or how much of a buzz," McIlroy said when asked what it has been like to be "carried around on the public's shoulders for about three weeks."

"I can't really..."

He paused, searching for words.

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

As the next chapter of "The Coronation of Rory McIlroy" unfolds this week on a rumpled piece of linksland 75 miles east of London, at least one obvious question looms: How, in his first start since the U.S. Open, will Rory handle the hoopla? In the 23 days since he lapped the field at Congressional, McIlroy has graced magazine covers, sat with Piers Morgan and had his likeness replicated on cakes by a bakery in his hometown of Holywood, Northern Ireland. McIlroy's visit to Wimbledon drew more headlines than the Williams sisters. And on Monday the New York Times ran 2,400 words — about 2,300 too many — on the golfer's potential political influence.

There's genuine interest in this kid. People like him. They want to root for him.

"Rory is on the forefront of people's minds," World No. 1 Luke Donald said Tuesday, "and rightly so."

"I think the thing about Rory is that he plays golf with a real flair and charisma, and I think fans are drawn to that," Phil Mickelson added. "He plays it with his youthful exuberance, and it's fun to watch and see somebody play golf like that and really enjoy it."

McIlroy feels the eyes on him. "Expectations are going to be high," he said. "I mean, I have high expectations of myself... All I need to do is focus on my game, and if I can do that, I know my good golf is good enough to win plenty more tournaments."

Royal St. George's, however, will pose a unique set of challenges for McIlroy and the rest of the 156-man field. It's a firm, fast course with wild greens and tilting fairways that can punish even purely struck shots. McIlroy likes to hit a high ball, which helped him fire at tucked pins on Congressional's damp greens. If the wind blows at Sandwich, as is forecast, he will likely need to resort to a lower, more boring flight, which could oust him from his comfort zone.

"If it is windy all week, then I'm not sure it will suit him," Chandler told the Guardian earlier this week.

McIlroy said he played two practice rounds at Royal St. George's last week: one on a still day, another when the flags were whipping. The Catch-22 that this layout presents quickly became apparent to him.

"With this wind, you're going to have to keep the ball low," he said. "But sometimes it's hard to run the ball into these greens because they're so undulating and they can go so many different ways. I think you're going to really need a very strong ball flight.

"I think especially with the rough not being up, I think this golf course is going to be all about the second shot and making sure that you get the ball in the right position on the green, because the greens are so slopey that you're going to have 25-, 30-footers all day if you do hit the greens."

McIlroy didn't arrive in Sandwich until Tuesday morning, but he did get reps in elsewhere this week. On Monday night, he played some holes with his father, Gerry, at Royal County Down, the grand old links near his Holywood home. Said McIlroy: "It was just me and him on the golf course, basically no one else, and I played nine holes and he walked around and just sort of — it was a really nice moment."

McIlroy will have another nice moment at 9:09 a.m. local time Thursday when he steps to the first tee as the 2011 U.S. Open champion. The crowd will cheer, McIlroy might tip his cap, and then he will get to work on his next goal: a second major title.

"It's nice to have the first one out of the way and now I can focus on getting more," he said.

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