By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy has expressed how much it would mean to triumph in next week’s championship on home soil at Royal Portrush and former British Open runner-up Paul Azinger loves the way he has embraced the magnitude of the event.
The way the American sees it, everyone knows what is at stake, so why try hiding from it?
“I’m a little surprised at how candid he’s been about the magnitude of what this event will mean to him, because Rory has taken the attitude all year that he’s going to treat every event the same,” Azinger said on Friday.
“But he admitted how much this is going to mean to him and I think it’s going to help him, because it’s the reality.
“The reality is it would mean more to him than anybody on earth. For him to openly admit it, publicly to us, to me I think it gives him a better chance.”
Four-times major champion McIlroy will finally have his first chance to play an Open in his homeland as the championship returns to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.
McIlroy recently acknowledged “100%” that winning at Portrush would be the most special victory of all.
Azinger, who finished a shot behind Nick Faldo at the 1987 Open at Muirfield and later collected his lone major title at the 1993 PGA Championship, rates McIlroy as his third favourite behind Americans Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson.
World number one Koepka has finished no worse than second in the past four majors.
“Koepka by a wide margin to me is the favourite,” the 59-year-old Azinger said, speaking on a conference call ahead of next week’s Open, where he will be lead analyst on the American television coverage for NBC and Golf Channel.
“His caddie is from there. This is going to be great for Brooks. It’s high time we stopped overlooking him.”
And what about the chances of Tiger Woods, who has not played since finishing equal 21st at the U.S. Open last month?
Woods, who has won 15 major titles, missed the cut at the PGA Championship, an understandable hangover perhaps after his famous triumph at the Masters where he ended a decade-long major victory drought in April.
Azinger is certainly not writing off the 15-times major champion but, at the same time, is not convinced that more victories are going to flow freely as the 43-year-old chases down Jack Nicklaus’s all-time record of 18 major titles.
“This next win for Tiger, it’s going to be a lot harder than people think because there’s a lot on the line for this next win and he’s had this mountain top experience of achieving that Masters victory,” Azinger said.
“The good news for Tiger fans is his game is out of the laboratory but, for me, the warning sign for Tiger fans is that could have been the peak moment for Tiger.
“Let’s give him some time to overcome that great victory at the Masters. I just saw a different Tiger the last two majors.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ken Ferris)