At the 17th hole, there was a wait as players gathered at the tee. McIlroy stepped away to take some practice swings.
“I think I had probably caught myself thinking about it a little too much,” he said. “I wanted to go clear my head a bit and start afresh with a new golf shot.”
McIlroy returned to the tee and hit a perfect drive, followed by a long iron to the front right side of the green and a two-putt for birdie. He closed out the round with a final birdie and carded a 61, breaking the previous course record of 64 set by Randal Evans in 2002.
“That confidence I had and the cockiness at 16,” he said. “Sometimes, I need to rediscover that.”
Royal Portrush has two links courses: the Dunluce Links and Valley Links. The Open, which starts on Thursday, will be played on Dunluce, on a par-72, 7,317-yard track designed by Harry Colt.
[Read more on how the British Open finally returned to Royal Portrush after almost 70 years.]
Royal Portrush previously hosted the British Open in 1951. The club also held the Irish Open in 2012, where McIlroy tied at 10 with 11 under. It has changed slightly since his course record, with the golf architect Martin Ebert updating it to meet championship standards.
McIlroy played the front nine last Saturday, including the new seventh and eighth holes.
“He just played them all alone,” said McNeill, the club pro. “He was really excited. He was buzzing.”
McIlroy called the new eighth hole, a par 4 at 430 yards, “a huge improvement.”
There are two bunkers to contend with. “You have two options,” he said. “You can take the bunkers out of play short or you can take the bunkers out of play long. Most guys lay back.” McIlroy played long.
He recognized the pressure to perform for hometown crowds.
“In my lifetime, I never thought I’d get to play an Open championship at home in Northern Ireland,” he said recently. “It’s going to be massive. That week has been earmarked for a long time. It’s going to be one of those weeks where I have to enjoy the opportunity of getting to play in front of my hometown, not trying too hard, not putting myself under a lot of pressure. Just to go out and enjoy it, because it might be the only time I get to do it.”