Rory McIlroy returns to Northern Irish soil as defending champion and tournament host for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation, and the four-time Major winner is in buoyant mood head of his maiden Rolex Series appearance.
The 28 year old claimed his home title for the first time in swashbuckling style last year at the K Club, and is hoping to become the first player to successfully defend the historic trophy since Colin Montgomerie in 1997.
McIlroy is feeling quietly confident at Portstewart Golf Club – where he will donate all of his winnings to the Rory Foundation no matter the result, with the European Tour Foundation also contributing £100,000 – and he will tee off on Thursday afternoon alongside Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Spanish rising star Jon Rahm.
World Number Two Matsuyama admitted he has been blown away by the stunning links course and is hoping it will provide the perfect preparation for The Open Championship in two weeks’ time as he chases a first Major title.
Shane Lowry, meanwhile, is also loving this year’s venue and is hoping he can conjure the magic of his remarkable home victory at this event back in 2009 – also on a links course at County Louth Golf Club.
“The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open has become one of the biggest weeks in the year, not only for me, but for our foundation. We’re able to raise a lot of money for worthy causes during this week, and that started last night with a great evening in Belfast with Pep. We were able to raise a lot of money through that.
“I’m able to donate my prize money to the foundation as well and obviously, with a $7 million prize fund that is going to be substantial if I play any way decent. It’s an added bonus that the European Tour Foundation has pledged £100,000 to the foundation.
“It’s fantastic that the foundation and myself, along with the European Tour have been able to raise the profile of this event from where it was a few years ago to what it is now. At the same time, we are able to help all these worthy causes. We raised over a €1 million last year and hopefully we can do the same this year.
“I’m very proud to be defending champion. The Irish Open is a title I’ve wanted to win since I was a young boy, and to realise that dream last year was very special. Not only because of just winning, but in the fashion that I won, and it was definitely one of the highlights of my golfing career.
“You know, it will be great to have a chance to defend it again this year, and I feel like I’m playing well enough to be able to have a chance. I’m looking forward to the week.
“I’ve played quite a bit of links golf over the past ten days since being home. My game feels in really good shape. You never quite know until you’re out there in the heat of competition, but the game feels in good shape.”
“This is my first time in Ireland, and when I decided I was going to come, from that point on, I couldn’t wait to get here. I was just so excited. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and starting the tournament.
“It’s a great track. The yardage might not be as long as some of the other courses we play, but you have to keep the ball in the fairway off the tee. It’s difficult and I’m going to have to play my best to be able to play well here.
“This is the first time I’ve come over to Europe early prior to The Open Championship. Playing here is going to be a great preparation, but first of all, I’m not thinking about The Open right now. I’m thinking about the Irish Open. Hopefully I can do my best.”
“It’s great to be here. I can’t remember ever playing Portstewart before, and getting to see the golf course the last couple of days, it’s a great golf course. It’s one of the nicest courses I’ve played to be honest. I really like it. I think it’s going to be a great tournament this week.
“Obviously with all the work that Dubai Duty Free and the Rory Foundation and Rory himself have put into it, it’s great to see players like Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm and a very strong field here this week. It’s great to be playing your home tournament with such a strong field in it.
“I came in quite under the radar in 2009. But obviously Baltray was huge, and I feel it’s such a long time ago now. It doesn’t feel like I’m on tour that long but I actually am.
“I’ll be forever grateful for the Irish Open, I suppose. I think no matter what I do, if I ever win a major, it will never top that week.
“I feel my game is good. I shot two bad scores in France last week, which wasn’t very good. But I felt like my game was okay. And then I come out here yesterday, I did a bit of practice over the weekend and it was alright. I felt like I was hitting it pretty good.”