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ANCASTER, Ont. — Rory McIlroy and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan hugged before an assembled crowd of dozens — despite the 6:30 a.m. start-time of his pro-am — who serenaded McIlroy’s caddie Harry Diamond with ‘Happy Birthday.’ They laughed. They walked. They talked about the final round of the PGA Championship.

And then it was back to work.

McIlroy, who won the RBC Canadian Open in 2019 at Hamilton Golf and Country Club and successfully defended his title three years later, said there’s nothing like a national open, and there’s nothing like Canadian fans.

In an exclusive conversation with Sportsnet, McIlroy — a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season — said since he first teed it up at the RBC Canadian Open, all he’s ever wanted to do is experience that feeling over and over again.

“The lasting memory (from 2019) was the support. It was absolutely incredible and all I’ve wanted to do is come back and play in that atmosphere year after year,” McIlroy said.

Without a title to defend this year, there was potentially a question about whether or not McIlroy would appear again at the Canadian Open before a busy summertime stretch. He said, however, he wanted to support RBC. The bank is the only two-tournament sponsor on the PGA Tour.

“I think I’ve made it well known what I think of national opens. They’re the oldest championships in our game and I think they’re very, very important,” McIlroy said later Wednesday morning in a press conference. “I’m very proud that I’ve won quite a few of them so it’s important to keep coming back and to play in front of crowds like this is amazing — it’s always a pleasure to come back up here.”

Although seemingly a lifetime has passed since McIlroy won the Canadian Open in 2019 — both in golf and life — the thing that stands out the most about his victory five years ago was what a “feel-good” factor that entire week was, he said. The Raptors were about to win the NBA championship and McIlroy stated he was “blown away” by the enthusiasm of the crowd.

Laughing sheepishly, he said he’s never been to a hockey game, but he imagines playing in Canada is what a hockey environment is like.

“I just think that the fans were so appreciative. And it’s not like I don’t get that elsewhere, but it’s more than that. It’s the one tournament where they get to see the top pros each year — maybe not this year because of the Presidents Cup — but it just feels different,” McIlroy said.

“The Rink hole definitely adds a bit of an atmosphere to it and that it’s a national open. Everyone is so proud. I was talking to Nick Taylor (on Tuesday) and I said, ‘I wish I had the patriotism that Canadians have.’ They love where they’re from. It’s awesome.”

McIlroy, who finished tied for ninth last year, was on his way to the airport when Taylor captured his title in dramatic, playoff fashion. With a smile he said he was hoping Tommy Fleetwood would have been able to get his first PGA Tour win, but to have a Canadian win the Canadian Open was “absolutely incredible.”

“To win it in that style, in that fashion, and with the scene afterwards and (Adam) Hadwin getting smoked by the security guard — it was absolutely perfect,” he said. “And this tournament deserved it after what it’s been through the last couple years with LIV (having its first event) in 2022 and the (PGA Tour-LIV) framework agreement last year. It deserved a finish like that.”

McIlroy comes into the week after finishing tied for 12th at the PGA Championship — on the heels of winning two events in a row. This week marks the first of four tournaments in a row for McIlroy, including two Signature Events and a major championship. He told Sportsnet he’s planning to play 27 tournaments this year — the most he’s played since his rookie year in Europe.

Early in the week of the PGA Championship, he announced he and wife Erica were getting divorced after seven years. McIlroy spent last week at one of his best friends’ weddings in Italy before returning home to be with family. He rested and he got reset, he said, hitting a total of about 150 golf balls.

“When I was struggling in the spring I was thinking, ‘Do you go and sit on a range for three weeks and try to figure it out? Or do you just try to keep playing and figure it out?’ And I’m glad I did keep playing because I figured it out,” McIlroy said. “It would have been easy (to pull out of some PGA Tour events) but I’m glad I kept playing because I found something. And I’ve went ahead with it.”

McIlroy said he found a “little swing thought” at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans — which he won alongside Shane Lowry in the Tour’s only team event — and that helped the next week at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, his second win in a row.

“I found a really consistent swing thought that I’m really comfortable with and it’s producing confidence and that’s giving me confidence and I’m building off that — so I’m excited for the summer. I really am,” McIlroy said.

McIlroy’s summer, like it has the last few years, starts this week in Canada.

He signed a few autographs for his playing partners Wednesday morning in the pro-am, nipping around in just over two hours — his final shot a wedge to about 10 feet on the par-4 ninth. Monahan, wearing a navy hoodie and chatting about the Florida Panthers’ overtime winner Tuesday night — had long peeled off.

Hamilton Golf and Country Club is suited for McIlroy’s game, although he’ll play the back nine for the first time this week on Thursday. He nearly shot 59 his last time playing the course. Those crowds he’s thrilled to see will be out in force Thursday and Friday — as he’s paired with Canadians Taylor Pendrith and Nick Taylor, the defending champion.

“I’m enjoying playing golf,” McIlroy said with a knowing nod. “It’s nice to be inside the ropes.”