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Rory McIlroy British Open Open Championship
Although he's now considered among the elite players in the world, Rory McIlroy remains a kid at heart. (Photo: Getty Images)

With expectations high, McIlroy strives to stay grounded

Having shot up into the top 25 of the Official World Ranking after a solid 2009 thus far, Rory McIlroy knows many people are looking for big things from him at Turnberry. But the 20-year-old from Northern Ireland knows there's a fine line between expectations and performance.

T.J. Auclair, Interactive Producer,

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- On a clear day on the beaches of Turnberry -- which doesn't seem to happen often around these parts -- one can see Northern Ireland off in the distance.

That makes this venue as close to home in an Open Championship as it gets for Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy. The 20-year-old sensation, who has soared into the top 25 of the Official World Golf Ranking, is something of an adopted hometown favorite at Turnberry.

However, before everyone gets all excited at the thought of the youngster hoisting the Claret Jug on Sunday evening, he has a warning.

"There's a lot of people that are thinking that because I've played a lot of links golf that this is going to suit me, but there's a lot more guys in this field that have played more Open Championships," he said.

Don't take McIlroy's humble approach as a lack of confidence. He's just a low-key kid -- a guy who would rather be an under-the-radar superstar like Geoff Ogilvy than a strike-a-pose superstar, a la Camilo Villegas.

"I still like to go out with my friends," McIlroy said. "I don't mind going out in Belfast or wherever it is. I do get recognized, but it's something you just get used to, I suppose. The only time I'm in America is at golf events, so I'm obviously going to get recognized there. But, no, I don't feel as if I'm any sort of superstar. I'm just trying to play golf and play golf well."

Too often, expectations aren't fair for young, talented players, but McIlroy could be the exception to the rule.

He's posted seven top-10 finishes on the European Tour through 15 events in 2009, highlighted by his first victory back in February over a world-class field in the Dubai Desert Classic. McIlroy tied for 20th in his first Masters in April and just a few weeks ago he tied for 10th in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

This will be McIlroy's second Open Championship. His first resulted in a tie for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007 where he was the low amateur. While he's new to golf's oldest major, McIlroy is far from new to links-style golf. It's the game he grew up playing. And when you listen to him speak, it's as if he has the years of maturity reserved for a grizzled veteran.

"I sometimes say to myself, you know, this is only your second Open Championship," he said. "You'll have 20 or 30 more of these. There's no point in trying to rush things. I sort of say that to myself sometimes, but there's also a part of me that says, 'Well, you know you've got the game to do well here.'

"I think it's a balance between having the right expectations and then, obviously, going and trying to fulfill those. It is hard, because walking up the 18th, you catch yourself thinking about, 'Oh, what if this happens or that happens, how good would it be to win the Open?' But it's just something you've got to deal with. I'm getting better and better at it every week."

Just in case McIlroy wouldn't be getting enough attention from the locals on Thursday afternoon with his 1:31 p.m. tee time (8:31 a.m. EDT), he'll be paired with two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and another young superstar in Anthony Kim.

McIlroy and Kim are like old mates at this point, having played together for the first two rounds of the Masters and the first three rounds of the U.S. Open.

"I've gotten to know him [Kim] pretty well in the majors," McIlroy said. "It's a great draw. I really enjoy Anthony's company. We get on really well. And we'll probably be chatting a lot because the third member is Goosen and [he] doesn't like to chat much. So I'm sure we'll be having a bit of fun like that."

The one constant that keeps coming up and could get in the way of any player winning this week is Tiger Woods. The players who have been around for a while are used to having their hearts broken by Woods -- guys like Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia, among a host of others. McIlroy, however, is the new kid on the block. He hasn't had victory speeches ripped out of his hands and torn into pieces because of Woods.

Even still, there's no lack of respect.

"He's not just another player," McIlroy said of Woods. "I remember when I first came out and I talked to Tiger and I was even nervous talking to him. He just has some sort of aura about him, you know? But he's just an incredible competitor. He hits shots that I wouldn't be able to hit sometimes. He's not won 14 majors for nothing and I'm sure he'll win a few more before his career is over."

"I've enjoyed watching him win his majors," McIlroy added. "I haven't had to deal with losing to him a lot or anything like that, so it's been more inspirational for me rather than disheartening that this guy is coming to win every major he plays."

Provided he can keep his level head and perspective, McIlroy is sure to have plenty of success in the years -- maybe even the days -- to come.

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