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Rory McIlroy’s British Open homecoming is new level of pressure

What’s old is very new this week as it relates to the 148th British Open.

For the first time in 68 years, the Open Championship will be played outside of Great Britain — at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

The Open, too, is now the final of the four major championships to be played this season — with PGA Championship, traditionally played in August, having been moved to May.

These are just two of a long list of compelling storylines to this Open.

Tiger Woods, who won his 15th career major championship when he won the Masters in April, enters this week at Portrush without having played a single tournament since the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach.

The last time Woods went with that strategy, skipping from one major to the next, he missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Bethpage after not playing following the Masters.

Another top storyline involves Brooks Koepka, who was unable to win the U.S. Open last month but has won four of the past nine majors in which he’s played. But he finished second to Gary Woodland. Before winning the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in May, he was unable to win the Masters. But he finished second to Woods.

Does that categorize a slump for Koepka? How will he bounce back at the British Open — which he’s never won, with a best finish his tie for sixth in 2017?

What will Woodland, winner of his first career major championship at Pebble Beach, have for an encore at Portrush? Woodland has played just once since his U.S. Open win and missed the cut at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.

And what to think of Rory McIlroy — who’s seeking his first major championship since 2014, when he won two (the British Open and PGA Championship)?

McIlroy, who owns four major championship titles, is a confounding case, because he isn’t playing poorly. In the 18 majors McIlroy has played — and not won — since his 2014 PGA triumph, he has 11 top-10 finishes, including five in the top-five. He, too, has five non-major wins in that span, including this year’s Players Championship and last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

But pressure is mounting for McIlroy, with all of his talent, to win another major soon. Adding to that pressure is the fact this week is essentially a home game for him. McIlroy grew up about a 45-minute drive away from Portrush, in Holywood. So outside expectations will be at an all-time high for him.

Speaking of local connections, Graeme McDowell is one of the best stories at this Open, having grown up playing the Portrush course as a child. McDowell, whose playing status had dipped since winning the 2010 U.S. Open, has fought his way back into relevance. That was climaxed by his tie for eighth at the RBC Canadian Open, which qualified him for this Open.

One of his life-long goals to play an Open Championship on his home course will be fulfilled this week.

“To play an Open Championship here at Portrush in front of my home fans and family is certainly something I dreamed about as a young boy,” McDowell said. “It’s going to feel epic on that first tee. The fans are going to offer huge support and they are excited to have the best players in the world come to Portrush. It’s going to be very special.

“Growing up there and always dreaming of seeing the Claret Jug in the trophy cabinets there and the photos from 1951, it’s always been a dream of mine for a very long time to have the Open Championship return to Portrush, but also to be in the field and be competitive and have the chance to go and compete and try to win the Claret Jug in my hometown.’’

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