Friday 30 September 2016

Dermot Gilleece: Final Major offers Rory McIlroy an opportunity to settle his putting nerves

Dermot Gilleece

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

Rory McIlroy. Photo: Reuters
Rory McIlroy. Photo: Reuters

While Scandinavians hailed a new golfing hero last Sunday, one could imagine a special smile from a little-known Swede, looking down from pristine fairways in the great beyond. Jan Blomqvist was a dreamer who imagined such achievements as Henrik Stenson's Open Championship triumph more than 30 years ago.

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Back in 1982 when Stenson was a lad of six, growing up in a Gothenburg home with no interest in golf, Blomqvist was observing crucial happenings in Lausanne, Switzerland, as Sweden's national coach. There, an elite quartet, each driving a sponsored Saab motor car, made a highly-organised assault on the World Amateur Team Championship for the Eisenhower Trophy.

"I certainly remember those cars, and how they had taken the players to practice sessions on Spain's Costa del Sol, and how well the squad generally seemed to be looked after by their national federation," recalls Arthur Pierse who, with Philip Walton, was a member of the British and Irish line-up.

As anticipated, the American team of Jay Sigel, Nathaniel Crosby, Jim Holtgrieve and Bob Lewis captured the title. But the big story concerned Per Andersson, Krister Kinell, Magnus Persson and Ove Sellberg, who lifted Sweden into a share of second place with Japan. Then, eight years later, the Swedes went the extra mile with Gabriel Hjertsrtedt, Mathias Gronberg, Per Nyman and Klas Eriksson capturing the Eisenhower Trophy in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It was an astonishing achievement, but the nature of the breakthrough ensured that there was more to come. In 1991, the professional trio of Anders Forsbrand, Per-Ulrik Johansson and Mats Lanner succeeded Ireland as Dunhill Cup champions. And the Swedes rounded off a marvellous year when Forsbrand and Johansson captured the World Cup in Rome. A further two years on, Joakim Haeggman became their first Ryder Cup representative at The Belfry.

Blomqvist, who is sadly no longer with us, was justifiably proud of those achievements. In conversations we had, however, he would express admiration and more than a little envy of Ireland's great tradition in the game, as personified by legendary figures such as Fred Daly, Christy O'Connor and Joe Carr. "That's the one, key ingredient our players are missing," he would say. "We've got to build our own tradition."

Henrik Stenson. Photo: PA
Henrik Stenson. Photo: PA

Now, later than many of us imagined, Stenson has made the breakthrough, as Daly did for Ireland almost 70 years ago. And later this week at Baltusrol, the Swede will be attempting to follow the lead of other Irishmen by completing an Open-PGA double as Pádraig Harrington did in 2008 and as Rory McIlroy (below) achieved in 2014.

Stenson's breathtaking performance at Royal Troon has quite rightly been lauded at the highest level. But I feel Jack Nicklaus was being over-generous when rating it more highly than his unavailing 'Duel in the Sun' with Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977. We're comparing the exploits of Stenson and Phil Mickelson with a time of inferior equipment and course conditioning. Which, in my view, makes comparisons somewhat inappropriate.

Meanwhile, observers of his autograph signing would have noticed that Stenson is left-handed, just like the great Ben Hogan was (Mickelson, incidentally, is right-handed). When I asked the bold Henrik why he chose to play golf right-handed, he replied: "It feels natural playing that way, because my dominant hand is at the top of the shaft. And I believe that's the way it should be." There are some well-known former hurlers of my acquaintance, who would roundly endorse that view.

Baltusrol reminds us that Mickelson should have been aiming for 61, rather than 62, as a record round in a Major on the opening day at Troon. When Nicklaus won his fourth US Open title there in 1980, he was forced to settle for a first-round 63 when, most uncharacteristically, he missed from no more than three feet for a birdie on the closing, 542-yard par-five.

Still, he went on to register a record aggregate of 272. And 35 years later, Mickelson outscored Thomas Bjorn and Steve Elkington there for the PGA Championship of 2005. That was when JP Fitzgerald, McIlroy's current caddie, was bagman for England's Greg Owen. "But my preparation for Rory would be totally different," he said.

Shot values have been largely preserved from the Nicklaus victory through an additional 386 yards to the overall length of the course, which is still a par 70 but at 7,462 yards. Its unusual finish remains a par-three 16th of 230 yards, a par-five 17th (650 yards) and a reachable par-five 18th of 553 yards.

This time around, much attention will focus, understandably, on Stenson. But it represents an extremely important assignment for McIlroy, a newcomer to Baltusrol, who will be joined by the usual Irish suspects, Shane Lowry, Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.

Harrington lifted this country decisively beyond its period of moral victories in golf. Which means that Lowry can take only marginal comfort from his near miss in the US Open at Oakmont. McIlroy certainly wasn't enthused about a fifth-place finish at Troon, especially given that he was 14 strokes behind the winner.

The world number four was clearly wrong in remarking, in the context of the Olympic Games, that he owed nothing to golf. Many of his admirers were greatly hurt by this. But the amount of nonsense he has had to endure recently about obvious putting problems should also be acknowledged.

Offers of technical advice on missed three-footers wouldn't make sense even to a humble club practitioner, who would be aware that success with these efforts is essentially down to confidence. I remember Harry Bradshaw, one of the game's all-time great putters, telling me of occasions when he would be warned by "a little man" in his head, that he was about to miss a short one. "And I'd tell him, 'No way I'm missing. Open the door Mrs Murphy, I'm coming in'."

Henry Cotton once remarked on the Portmarnock professional's talent for keeping his head and eyes directly over where the ball was, until it "arrives at the hole or is heard to rattle into the cup." In other words, "hitting and harking." "On his best days," said Cotton, "he is a superb putter."

Bradshaw revelled on greens marginally slower than those at Troon, where speeds were down as low as 9.0 to 9.5 on the Stimpmeter, as a precaution against balls moving in gusting winds. So, against this background, how good was the putting performance by Stenson?

I offer the expertise of Pete Dye, one of the world's great golf-course architects. "When you cut greens low, you eliminate grain which should be part of the game of golf," he said. "Ben Hogan won the US Open at Oakmont in 1953 on the fastest greens in the history of the United States, and if they had a Stimpmeter at the time, those greens would probably have measured about five or six.

"Professionals have a harder time putting on greens of seven or eight than they do on the really fast ones. On slow greens, you could have three different speeds, down-grain, up-grain and cross-grain, to contend with." Which can only add significantly to the merit of Stenson's achievement.

In the sort of target conditions he relishes, McIlroy will set out on Thursday to repair bruised confidence. Better than anybody, he is aware that if the powerhouse of his game from tee to green is in good shape, success with the blade will follow. He needs to believe that fourth in the world is not his true standing in the game. And Baltusrol is his chance.

For the other leading Irishman, Lowry, it represents a different sort of challenge. From the time he was a pudgy teenager with glasses, the Offaly man's potential was greatly admired by English coach, Pete Cowen, who has guided Stenson's fortunes for close on 15 years. But what has Lowry delivered?

Do victories in the Portugal Masters (2012) and the Bridgestone Invitational (2015) in his seven years as a tournament professional represent a return commensurate with his undoubted talents? I think not. There is the feeling that he needs to push himself harder at the highest level, where a missed cut last weekend was especially disappointing.

This week's venue takes its name from an unfortunate farmer, Baltus Roll, who was the victim of one of America's most notorious rural crimes during the 1800s. On George Washington's birthday in 1831, while his helpless wife looked on in horror, the hapless Roll was dragged from his house and beaten to death by thieves who erroneously believed that cash was hidden inside.

A century later, from a 36-hole complex designed by the distinguished AW Tillinghast in 1922, the lower course emerged as a championship layout where Robert Trent Jones remodelled certain holes in preparation for the 1954 US Open.

It offers McIlroy a timely opportunity to get back on a roll. But with all the other big guns in action, confidence on the greens will be crucial. Open the door Mrs Murphy...

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