The Open 2018: Golf’s coming home for Rory McIlroy next year and he is hungry to arrive at Royal Portrush armed with the Claret Jug

IT’S certainly coming home for Rory McIlroy.

This time next year, Northern Ireland’s greatest showman since Georgie Best will be teeing off at the biggest sporting event ever held in the province.

 Rory McIlroy has extra incentive to win at Carnoustie - so he can take the Claret Jug to Northern Ireland for the Open next year

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Rory McIlroy has extra incentive to win at Carnoustie – so he can take the Claret Jug to Northern Ireland for the Open next year

The Open will be staged across the Irish Sea at Royal Portrush for the first time in 58 years and only the second time in history — and McIlroy is determined to turn up armed with the Claret Jug as defending champion.

Here at Carnoustie, McIlroy is in serious contention for his first Major triumph since 2014 after shooting back-to-back 69s to reach the halfway stage at four-under-par.

And after battling through the morning rain, he spoke of his pride and anticipation for next year’s homecoming — at a venue where he shot a course-record 61 at the age of just 16.

McIlroy said: “It’s almost 60 years since The Open was at Portrush and I personally never thought I’d be able to play an Open at home.

 Rory McIlroy is one of five players two shots off the halfway lead at Carnoustie

Getty Images – Getty
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Rory McIlroy is one of five players two shots off the halfway lead at Carnoustie
 Northern Ireland superstar Rory McIlroy is the second-best placed Brit, with England ace Tommy Fleetwood above him on minus five

Reuters
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Northern Ireland superstar Rory McIlroy is the second-best placed Brit, with England ace Tommy Fleetwood above him on minus five

“It’s going to be really cool. I’m excited for it.

“As someone from that part of the world, I’m going to be very proud to showcase where I’m from and to play in front of all the people who have supported me throughout my career.

“I have to focus on these next two days but obviously I’d love to be able to hand the Claret Jug back on the first tee at Portrush next year.

“The 2019 Open has been on my radar for a long time — and everyone is getting up for it at home as well.

 County Down hero Rory McIlroy is keen to end his four-year Major drought

EPA
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County Down hero Rory McIlroy is keen to end his four-year Major drought

“It’s still a year away but Portrush is looking great. They’ve designed a couple of new holes, which will be fantastic.”

McIlroy, who won the silver medal as leading amateur the last time The Open was staged at Carnoustie in 2007, is the sportsman for whom the term ‘a spring in his step’ is most appropriate.

When he is at the top of his game, he literally bounces down the fairways — part Tigger and part Tiger.

 Rory McIlroy has a spring in his step when he is in form and enjoying his golf

Getty Images – Getty
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Rory McIlroy has a spring in his step when he is in form and enjoying his golf

But after collecting four Majors by the age of 25, there has been widespread disappointment that the boy from Hollywood, County Down, has been unable to establish himself as golf’s silver-screen idol.

There is a feeling that the Nike poster boy has become content with lucrative endorsements and a decent level of consistency, without possessing the hunger to win remorselessly in the manner of Tiger Woods in his heyday.

But yesterday’s round seemed to answer a few questions about McIlroy’s appetite.

 Since winning the Open and the US Open in 2014 Rory McIlroy has failed to win another Major but looks in fine fettle again

AP:Associated Press
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Since winning the Open and the US Open in 2014 Rory McIlroy has failed to win another Major but looks in fine fettle again

This wasn’t a day for freewheeling but getting your head down and gutsing it out.

Going out late on Thursday and early on Friday was the worst of the draw but McIlroy, a self-confessed fair-weather golfer, did not sulk and rattled off four birdies in eight holes either side of the turn.

He said: “I wouldn’t say I like playing in the rain, I’ve just got better at it. I kept level-headed and didn’t let the conditions get to me.

Jon Rahm loses his cool at the Open as he SMASHES golf club to the floor after getting triple bogey

“I wasn’t saying to myself ‘I wish I was on the other side of the draw’. I got my head down and got on with it.”

There was no better example than when McIlroy sliced his drive horribly on the brutal 17th hole only to save par with a peachy chip, plonked to within tap-in distance.

Now the 29-year-old is determined to attack Carnoustie in the more benign weekend conditions — after admitting he regrets having played within himself at the first two Majors of the year.

He added: “I feel like there are some low rounds in me here because I felt very comfortable out there.

“I’ve learned a lot from Augusta this year because even if I still hadn’t won that tournament but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.

“So even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging and giving it my best.

“I needed a lot of patience and I didn’t make a bogey until the 11th but I’m in a great position going into the third day.”

They will be willing him on back in Portrush, desperate to see him coming home, Nike swish on his shirt, Claret Jug still gleaming.

IT’S certainly coming home for Rory McIlroy.