Far from the madding crowd, Rory McIlroy didn't look like a man who'd touched down into Dublin airport at 5.15am after a transatlantic flight as he went through his routine in his own bubble: just the main man, and members of his team, as he got acquainted with the Jack Nicklaus's design at Mount Juliet.
On the last occasion he'd visited the venue at Thomastown in Co Kilkenny, McIlroy was a 13-year-old teenager who managed to work his way through the crowds at the back of the 18th green as Tiger Woods was presented with the WGC-American Express trophy. Woods's glove dangled out of his rear pocket and McIlroy could have reached and grabbed it he was so close, but didn't.
All these years later, the kid now a four-time Major champion, McIlroy recalled: “I somehow sneaked my way like under the rope onto the back of the green, and I was standing right behind him and his glove was still in his back pocket. And like I could have reached and got it and ran; it would have been a good story to tell him but I obviously didn’t.
“It was the first time I ever watched Tiger play live. I remember the first shot I ever saw him hit was a drive off the fifth hole, the par five, and he hit a 2-iron into the green. It was really cool. I idolised him growing up and to actually see the man in the flesh was pretty exciting.”
McIlroy looked comfortable and content as he went about his business, working out the angles with his caddie Harry Diamond, as he prepared to play in his first Irish Open since 2018.
"I'd love to win again. It meant a lot to win at The K Club for a few reasons. Obviously, my foundation was involved that week and the money we raised, with the prize money on top of that, made it a very fulfilling week. Coming back to a golf course that is pretty similar, it's probably my best chance since. I've watched golf around here. I watched Tiger take it apart back in the day. I hope I can emulate him," said McIlroy, evidently comfortable with what he has seen since his arrival for a three week stint this side of the pond that will also take in next week's Scottish Open and the following week's British Open.
Originally, McIlroy had planned to take off the week in between the Irish and British Open at Royal St Georges and spend a few days with his wife Erica and daughter Poppy. But the stricter Covid regulations that required them to quarantine put paid to those plans, so they’ve gone to New York instead and he’s added the Scottish onto his itinerary.
“I feel good. It’s nice to be back. It’s a bit of a shame that I couldn’t bring the family but Facetime and everything else makes it a bit easier. It’s going to be a great three weeks of golf. I’m looking forward to playing here and getting off to a good start on this run that I’ve got coming up, but first and foremost I want to play well this week and get the game in shape.”
McIlroy's last tournament was a tied-7th finish at the US Open at Torrey Pines and, as he heads into the second half of the year, and with the guts of four months' work on his swing changes with coach Pete Cowen, he has reached more of a comfort level with his game and his expectations. "Everything that I've sort of being working on had started to bed in. The game feels good . . . it's very close," he said.
Of again contending in a Major at the US Open, he added: “I felt in control of my game on Sunday and there have been sometimes when I haven’t felt completely in control of what I’ve been doing out there, especially when it’s a pretty high-pressure situation like the final round of a Major.
So that was very encouraging, hitting some of the shots that I hit and just the feeling I had out there. I came off the course obviously disappointed with the way I finished but very encouraged by just sort of how I felt out there.”
In an ideal scenario for McIlroy, another Irish Open win could provide the catalyst for a strong second part of the season and the opportunity to tick personal targets: "I think getting myself into contention at The Open would be great. I think having a chance to win both the FedExCup and the Race to Dubai; I think they are two pretty good goals of mine I'd like to try to achieve.
“And have a great Ryder Cup. Obviously that’s very important. There’s a lot of golf to play up until that point, but I’d say they are the main goals. Just give myself a chance at The Open. Give myself a chance in both FedExCup and Race to Dubai, and try to have a really good Ryder Cup.”