Rory-mania takes off at 140th British Open

SANDWICH, England Wed Jul 13, 2011 8:45am EDT

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland signs autographs for fans as he leaves the 18th green after the final practice round for the British Open golf championship at Royal St George's in Sandwich, southern England July 13, 2011. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland signs autographs for fans as he leaves the 18th green after the final practice round for the British Open golf championship at Royal St George's in Sandwich, southern England July 13, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Kieran Doherty

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SANDWICH, England (Reuters) - Favorite Rory McIlroy and the rest of the 156-strong field have been buffeted by blustery winds during practice for the British Open and there is unlikely to be any let-up when the third major of the season starts on Thursday.

Rory-mania has swept Sandwich this week but if the weather forecast and major championship form lines are anything to go by, the young Northern Irishman will have his work cut out to add the coveted Claret Jug to the U.S. Open title he won so spectacularly last month.

Forecasters expect gusts of up to 30-mph for the early starters in the opening round which will have an impact on McIlroy and playing partners Ernie Els and Rickie Fowler when they tee off at 0909 local time.

The luck of the draw is always an issue in the unpredictable conditions of a British Open and McIlroy could again encounter the worst of the weather when he tees off at 1410 in the second round, with winds possibly reaching as high as 30-mph late on Friday.

Royal & Ancient organizers said they were preparing to move the tees forward if the winds get too strong.

"We do have some wind issues out there which may, dependent on direction, make some of the very back tees difficult to reach fairways from," chief executive Peter Dawson told reporters on Wednesday.

"We have told the players we may move some tees up. The back tee at the 564-yard, par-five seventh was always going to be challenging.

"It's about 270 to 280 yards to the top of the crest there and 220-ish to the fairway. Some players were having great difficulty reaching the fairway from the back tee yesterday," added Dawson.

"Without wishing to pre-empt what we do exactly, the seventh would certainly have been a candidate, as would the 243-yard, par-three 11th yesterday, for moving up."

BOOKMAKERS' Favorite

McIlroy's runaway eight-shot victory at Congressional last month blew the golfing world away and it came as no surprise when the tousle-haired boy from Holywood was installed as 8-1 favorite by bookmakers to land the 140th edition of the British Open.

However, it is rare for any player to manage back-to-back victories in major championships.

Ireland's Padraig Harrington was the last to achieve that feat when he won the British Open and U.S. PGA Championship in 2008.

Tiger Woods, absent this week with a knee injury, produced a British Open-U.S. PGA double in 2006 but you have to flick a long way back through the record books for the previous such achievement, when Zimbabwean Nick Price captured the same two titles in 1994.

McIlroy's rivals, though, are expecting the 22-year-old to be the player to beat.

"Rory is at the forefront of a lot of people's minds and rightly so," said world number one Luke Donald.

"He was impressive in the U.S. Open. Winning majors is a big deal and he did it in great fashion."

McIlroy, just as Woods used to do when he was at the height of his powers, rose with the larks on Wednesday in order to practice in relative peace and quiet.

He may have gone under the radar at the start of the round but when he walked off the 18th green he was engulfed in a sea of fans desperate to catch a glimpse of golf's new young whizzkid.

World number six Phil Mickelson, who has won four majors but has yet to land the Claret Jug in 17 attempts, praised the way McIlroy goes about his work.

"The thing about Rory is he plays golf with a real flair and a real charisma and I think fans are drawn to that," said the 41-year-old American.

"He plays it with this youthful exuberance and it's fun to watch and see somebody play golf like that and really enjoying it. It's not just how he won the U.S. Open with his great play but also the way he interacted with people."

McIlroy, however, has won only three times in his career and players like Donald, world number two Lee Westwood and third-ranked Martin Kaymer will believe they are just as capable of mastering the Royal St George's links.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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