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 has missed the cut in four of his last five tournaments and lost 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 McIlroy. If he makes the cut, he'll be performing before sellout crowds of 27,000 all four days of the tournament, a first for the European Tour.
''The last couple of years, I didn't really enjoy the tag of home favorite, I just didn't feel very comfortable with it,'' McIlroy said. ''This year I really want to embrace that.''
McDowell arrives after a second-place finish at the recent U.S. Open, while Clarke knows the course well after relocating to the area from London four years ago. He claims the move was a big 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.
However, most eyes will be on the second-ranked McIlroy, the winner of the 2011 U.S. Open.
His consistent form from the start of 2012 deserted him, failing to make the weekend at his last event in Europe, the flagship PGA Championship at Wentworth and 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.
Watch live, first-round coverage of the Irish Open on Golf Channel Thursday at 9AM ET.