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Rory McIlroy: Genuine Open Contender

July 16, 2009

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Rory McIlroy can win The Open Championship at Turnberry this weekend.

The bushy-haired 20-year old from Northern Ireland is playing only his second Open, and first as a professional. But he is such a talent that he is capable of pulling off the biggest win in a major championship since the 21-year old Tiger Woods ran off with The U.S. Masters in 1997.

Rory’s youth should not hamper his chances. In fact it could encourage him. Only Tiger himself — who only a lunatic would argue is not the greatest golfer who ever lived — has a comparable early career record.  Tiger had just turned pro when he won the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational as a 20 year-old, but McIlroy was still a teenager when he secured his first victory as a professional: the high profile Dubai Desert Classic earlier this year.

Youthful prodigies are rare in golf. The Open’s two-time defending champion Padraig Harrington did not even turn pro until he was 24. But if you watch Rory play it immediately becomes apparent why he has had so much success.

I was lucky enough to arrive at Wentworth Golf Club in south west London a few minutes before Rory was due to begin his 3rd round at the BMW PGA Championship.

The first shot I saw him hit, his drive at the Par 3 second, was unlike any that his older peers had attempted in the groups before him. The ball fizzed extraordinarily high, drawing in right to left over the greenside bunker and onto the pin. He made the birdie putt, and proceeded to go round in a 7-under par 65, including eight birdies. At the 18th, a severe dog-leg par 5, he was so confident he smashed his drive well over 300 yards and around the corner of the fairway. Afterwards he just turned to his caddy and grinned.

McIlroy came 5th at Wentworth, and later 10th at the rain-hit U.S. Open near New York. Last week he had a quiet level par tournament at The Scottish Open, which has helpfully moved him just outside the limelight. For The Open’s two opening rounds he has drawn quiet South African Retief Goosen and American youngster Anthony Kim — both stars but without the public baggage that would have come with teeing up alongside Tiger or British no. 1 Paul Casey.

Rory McIlroy won the Silver Medal for top amateur in 2007. This year it could be the Claret jug.

PHOTO: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland smiles as he stands on the driving range ahead of the British Open Golf Championship at the Turnberry Golf Club in Scotland, July 15, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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