Rory McIlroy is the bookmakers’ favorite to take the British Open as American golfers look to end their longest winless run in major tournament history.
McIlroy won last month’s U.S. Open by eight strokes, setting 12 tournament records, including his score of 16-under- par, the lowest in the event’s 111-year history. He’ll be vying for his second straight major title at golf’s oldest championship, which began today when Jerry Kelly struck the first tee shot at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England.
McIlroy made bogey on his opening hole after his second shot rolled off the back of the green. He’s returning to competitive play for the first time since his win at Congressional Golf Club outside Washington on June 19. Since then he’s had to deal with a whirlwind of publicity.
“I didn’t realize how much fuss it would create or how much of a buzz,” McIlroy, a 22-year-old Northern Irishman, said at a news conference two days ago. “I’ve got to forget about what happened three weeks ago and just come in here and try to win another golf tournament.”
U.K. bookmaker William Hill lists McIlroy as the 10-1 favorite, meaning a successful $1 bet returns $10 plus the original stake. England’s Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the top two in the Official World Golf Ranking, are next at 12-1 and 14- 1, followed by U.S. PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany at 28- 1.
“I’m not worried about American golf,” Phil Mickelson, a four-time major champion who is 50-1 to win his first British Open, said at a news conference. “It’s not as though we don’t have good young players coming up to represent America because I think we do. I think the overall level of play throughout the world internationally is what’s sparked that.”
Wind could be a major factor at the links course 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of London. Play started in a light breeze with the forecast calling for gusts of up to 30 miles per hour. Organizers said yesterday they may move up some tee positions if the winds blow.
“With this wind, you’re going to have to keep the ball low,” McIlroy said.
With Tiger Woods winless since 2009 and missing his second straight major with knee and back injuries, golf is seeking its next superstar.
McIlroy’s U.S. Open performance has led to comparisons with Woods, who caught the public’s imagination with his 12-shot victory as a 21-year-old at the 1997 Masters Tournament and has since added 13 more major titles. The success makes McIlroy attractive to fans and sponsors.
“Some of the features are common, clearly the public loves a young and upcoming personality,” Tom Cannon, a professor and sports finance expert at the University of Liverpool Management School in England, said in an interview. “You can see already an awful lot of sponsor interest in him.”
Chubby Chandler, McIlroy’s agent, said he has been fielding calls from potential sponsors the past three weeks. One thing is on their minds.
“They’re all people that want a young connection with their brands,” Chandler said in an interview, declining to say just where the calls are coming from. “All worldwide, some massive companies.”
Like Woods, McIlroy received attention as a youngster. He appeared on a local television show in Ireland to show off his golfing prowess as a 9-year-old, took part in international youth competitions and has a demeanor that puts him at ease under the spotlight.
“A terrific golfer and a likeable individual,” Peter Dawson, chief executive officer of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, said in an interview. He’s “very charismatic, very good with the media, very open, very honest.”
Nine-time major champion Gary Player said it’s still too early to anoint McIlroy as Woods’s successor.
“He’s not there yet,” Player said in a telephone interview. “I think you need to win at least six majors before you are a true superstar, but he has everything. He’s a wonderful young man, he’s long and he has a beautiful golf swing.”
Being the focus of attention is nothing new for McIlroy.
“I’m the sort of person that likes to have people watching,” he said. “I’ve got used to it over the last few years and it’s something I enjoy.”
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