'A gradual process'

Even though he's only in his early 20s, Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy had a chance to win a few majors before breaking through in the U.S. Open last month. McIlroy said winning came along as part of a gradual process.


Following an eight-shot victory at last month's U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy is understandably the favorite at Royal St. George's. (Getty Images)

By Andy Farrell, Special to

SANDWICH, England -- When Seve Ballesteros arrived at Royal St. George's for the first time, he looked out from the clubhouse and asked: "Where is the golf course?"

Hidden amidst the sand dunes of Sandwich lies a beast of a course that once more hosts the Open Championship. Seve eventually found the course and a way to play -- he won the European Tour's PGA Championship here in 1983, just a year before his second Open triumph at St. Andrews.

Seve is much missed at this Open. He is here on the posters and in the program, and in the hearts and minds of all golfers -- both those elite players who will be trying to win the Claret Jug and those of more modest standards who love to see the best showing them how to do it -- who have gathered once more for this annual festival by the seaside.

The competitors in the 140th Open signed a book of remembrance when they registered and it will be given to the Ballesteros family. But the feeling persists that golf is ready for another star to inspire the way Seve did three decades ago.

Is the man to do that Rory McIlroy?

The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland is already the center of attention following his historic victory in the U.S. Open. He has already been anointed as the next of the game's greats.

Ernie Els had that tag in the 1990s. The South African maestro is a playing partner of McIlroy for the first two days. So, too, does Rickie Fowler, who is certainly a player to watch but has yet to achieve the things McIlroy has done.

Clearly, it is absurd to anoint anyone the "next Seve." There was, and could only be, one.

McIlroy hits more fairways and, from the center of the fairways, knocks down more pins. He does not need the stellar short game that the wayward genius of Ballesteros demanded.

But there is an undoubted appeal to McIlroy, the kid who did not want to appear too cocky and blew the last round of the Masters; and then became the man who strutted his way to an eight-stroke victory at Congressional.

McIlroy started with a 63 at St. Andrews last year but was blown away with an 80 in the second round. It has all been part of the learning experience.

"It has been a gradual process," he said. "I've learnt every time, it's just taken me three of four times to put all the pieces together."

Will it all come together at Sandwich? Conditions will be vastly different. His approach will not be.

"I have the confidence that I can step on the first tee of a major knowing I've done it," he said. "There is no reason why I can't do it again. My mentality will be exactly the same. If I could bottle the mentality I had at the U.S. Open, I'd be very happy."

Royal St. George's had been the scene of two emotional home victories. Henry Cotton won in 1934 and ended a decade of American domination at the Open. Sandy Lyle was the champion in 1985, the first home winner since Tony Jacklin in 1969.

There has not been a home winner of the Open since Paul Lawrie in 1999. McIlroy could change that but not just the Northern Irishman. England has the top-two players in the world in Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. England expects. Not since Jacklin at Royal Lytham 42 years ago has an Englishman won an Open in England. What better than to end that drought where JH Taylor in 1894 won the first Open outside Scotland. At the course named after England's patron saint.

"You can't get more English than that," Westwood said. "It's the biggest championship in the world as far as I'm concerned."

Westwood has been third and second at the last two Opens.

"Hopefully, it's a mathematical progression. I'm hoping for a first, obviously," he said. "I've been playing well recently. It's a week I've looked forward to all year."

Donald has a relatively poor Open record but won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart last week to extend his reign as the world No 1. But with Rorymania around, he was asked if he was coming in under the radar?

"I don't think I'm under the radar because I did win last week," Donald said. "Obviously, Rory is at the forefront of people's minds and rightly so. He was impressive in the U.S. Open. Winning majors is a big deal, he did it in great fashion. I'm sure there is a lot of attention on him and a little bit more pressure, as well."

Martin Kaymer, the fourth member of Europe's top-four on the world rankings, mentioned how important the short game may be over the next four days.

"So Luke Donald has a good chance, I think," he said.

They may be prophetic words.