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Rory McIlroy eases back into major test

7/15/2011 - Golf Rory McIlroy

SANDWICH, England -- In case you were wondering whether Rory McIlroy would fold here like a rental car road map, forget it. He's not leading the Open Championship at Royal St. George's, but his first-round score and body language screamed, "Hi, I'm Rory. I'm a Taurus. And I'll see you late Sunday afternoon."

McIlroy shot a 1-over-par 71 on Thursday, which is 6 strokes behind co-leaders Thomas Bjorn and 20-year-old amateur Tom Lewis. The 40-year-old Bjorn dialed the way-back machine to 2003, when he came thisclose to winning the Open at this very same grouchy, cojones-busting course. He's a delightful man with a compelling story (his father passed away in May … he got in the tournament as a fifth alternate), but he isn't McIlroy.

The galleries following McIlroy were as swollen as a set of tonsils. He got the loudest cheers, the most TV coverage and attracted the largest amount of pre- and post-round attention. This is what happens when you win the U.S. Open a month earlier by a thousand strokes.

Don't get me wrong: It was a 71, not 61 that he shot. McIlroy couldn't figure out the pace of Royal St. George's berber carpet greens. It took him 31 putts to wheel around this place. He bogeyed two of the first three holes and only hit eight of 14 fairways. Yuck.

But it could have been worse and wasn't. McIlroy kept the round together and the leaders within easy viewing distance.

"No, no hangover from the U.S. Open," said McIlroy.

Then someone asked: "How many hangovers have you had since the U.S. Open?"

McIlroy grinned, tilted his head back and began counting. After all, he has said the only thing better than kissing that U.S. Open trophy is drinking out of it.

"Uh, three … four … five," said McIlroy.

But party time is finished. He arrived at Royal St. George's relatively rested after a three-week victory tour. He came here to win this thing, not make a cameo appearance.

"Just to get out there with [caddie] J.P. [Fitzgerald] and spend five hours inside the ropes and just go -- that's where I'm most comfortable, is doing that," McIlroy said. "That's me. I'm in my element whenever I'm inside the ropes and playing."

It helped that he played with Rickie Fowler, another 22-year-old who first played against McIlroy in an alternate shot match at the 2007 Walker Cup. Fowler and McIlroy can kill time talking about what it's like to stuff all that hair under their hats.

Ernie Els filled out the threesome and everyone mostly had a decent time. McIlroy shot his 71, Fowler a 70 and Els a 72 during a day when the winds off the English Channel could cause a four-club difference.

The crowds and the TV cameras made a beeline toward McIlroy and understandably so. Even if Tiger were here, McIlroy would be the main attraction.

"The fans were great over here," said Fowler. "Obviously they're cheering on Rory. It has a feeling like he's a hero over here now. … So it's fun to play alongside him. I've always enjoyed it and [it feels] like the crowd was definitely in his favor today."

McIlroy handled the attention as if he were walking down High Street in his hometown of Holywood, Northern Ireland. He spent half his day tipping his hat and the other half smiling to the galleries. He was anxiety-free.

No surprise there. His longtime swing coach, Michael Bannon, said the win at Congressional last month gives McIlroy a certain freedom he didn't have before the U.S. Open. Back then, he was on the short list of BPNTHWAM (Best Player Never To Have Won A Major).

"He's got the confidence now to know that he can win a big one," said Bannon. "The next time he tees it up, or he's leading a Masters or a British Open, he'll know that he has the capability because he's done it before. I think it will be a big burden off his back."

A year ago at St. Andrews, McIlroy shot a stunning 63 in the first round of the Open Championship. He had the lead -- and then he didn't, thanks to an equally stunning second-round 80. He recovered enough to finish tied for third.

This is different. In some ways, McIlroy is different. He has that first major championship now. He also has patience. His driver's license says he's 22, but his golf game says he's much, much older.

"I don't feel as if I have to do that much differently," said McIlroy, when asked what he'll do to challenge on Sunday. "I just need to, as I said, keep it tight, keep it on the fairway, hit a few greens and just take your birdies here and there because I think that's going to be the key this week, to keep it around even par."

Dull, yes, but true. McIlroy will take dull, beautiful pars all day. That's because you don't try to hit St. George's in the mouth with a crowbar. You sneak around its back. You bore it to death.

McIlroy knows that. He also knows his game and now his mentality is built for championships.

"It's a nice pressure to have," he said. "I'm not complaining. I've put myself in this position, and it's what I've always wanted to do. I wanted to be under pressure to win tournaments. Yeah, I mean, if that's the worst complaint that I have, I'll be doing all right."

And then he was off to lunch. Like he didn't have a care in the world.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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