Portrush, Northern Ireland: Backed by record galleries and buoyed by his stunning feats here as a 16-year-old rising star, Rory McIlroy heads into the Irish Open at Royal Portrush intent on reviving his stuttering season and winning his home tournament for the first time.
McIlroy's recent dip in form has seen him miss the cut in four of his last five tournaments and lose his No. 1 ranking to Luke Donald.
However, memories of an 11-under 61 on the links course in Antrim during the 2005 North of Ireland Championship are spurring the former U.S. Open champion on, as is the prospect of playing in front of the European Tour's first ever advance sellout crowds.
"The last couple of years, I didn't really enjoy the tag of home favourite, I just didn't feel very comfortable with it," said McIlroy. "This year I really want to embrace that."
With McIlroy joined by fellow countrymen and major winners Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, all four days are 27,000-capacity sellouts, a first for the tour, as Northern Ireland hosts the Irish Open for the first time since 1953.
McDowell will be full of confidence after his second-place finish at the U.S. Open a fortnight ago, while Clarke knows the course well having relocated back to the area from London four years ago, a move he claims was a crucial factor behind his win at the British Open last year.
"It's almost got an Open feel, which is what I think the course deserves. It's just a very special place," said Clarke, who hasn't finished better than 20th at a tournament since his victory at Royal St. George's last July.
The second-ranked McIlroy is the player most eyes will be on, however.
His consistent form from the start of 2012 has deserted him and he failed to make the weekend at his last event in Europe, the flagship BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, as well as the U.S. Open in San Francisco.
"I've put 10 days of really good work in. My game feels good," said the 23-year-old McIlroy. "It actually felt pretty good at the U.S. Open."
"I felt like it was starting to come around. In a way it couldn't be a better time to come back here and play Portrush. It brings back so many good memories, and you can feed off that, and that gives you some confidence."
With the British Open less than a month away, the Irish Open gives players some timely experience of links golf. The forecast is for wind and rain, conditions Clarke usually relishes.
Double British Open champion Padraig Harrington, of Ireland, is also in the field along with two U.S. PGA Championship winners from the United States, Rich Beem and Keegan Bradley.