Sport Golf

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Fire and fury keeping Rory McIlroy on top of rivals

Eagle-eyed World no 1 continues to soar as rain storm wrecks Lowry's day

Karl MacGinty

Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30

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All eyes are on Rory McIlroy as he tees off on the 15th hole during the second round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla

RORY McILROY has found a new ally, one Tiger Woods used call upon frequently when he was the most feared player on the planet.

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Its name is fury and McIlroy amply demonstrated over the opening two days at the US PGA Championship that he's now capable of harnessing anger and turning it to his advantage.

Sadly, even a saint would be hard-pressed to contain his rage if faced with the same shambolic circumstances as those which confronted Shane Lowry on the first yesterday as Valhalla rapidly flooded under a downpour.

Though torrential rain had been well forecast and pools of casual water already were forming on fairways and greens, Lowry and his playing companions in the first group off one, including joint overnight leader Ryan Palmer, were sent out to play for 20 minutes in the deluge before sanity prevailed.

Understandably unsettled by the shenanigans, Lowry played the first seven holes of his second round in three-over, undoing his splendid work in Thursday's 68 and setting the tone for the 74 that left him uncomfortably close to the projected cut mark on even par.

That was nine off the clubhouse lead set by his friend and former playing partner on the Irish amateur team, McIlroy who, once again, yesterday showed the mental fortitude which used allow Tiger to force his way into contention at Majors without playing his stellar best.

CRISIS

It had been hugely impressive on Thursday to see the 25-year-old Holywood star rebound brilliantly from a mid-round crisis that left him wallowing at even par through 11 holes to play his final seven in five-under for a 66.

While much is made of the confidence McIlroy draws from his driver, notably he didn't need to shoot the lights out with that crimson Nike Covert 2 yesterday as he recovered from a shaky to establish a two-shot lead in the clubhouse on nine-under with a delightful but hard-grinding 67.

One of the most significant comments uttered by McIlroy during his recent victory march from May's BMW PGA at Wentworth, through last month's Open at Hoylake and on to last Sunday's first World Championship win at Firestone, came on Thursday night.

Explaining how he'd recovered from the seemingly grievous twin-setback of a double-bogey seven at 10 and a three-putt bogey four at the next, the Ulsterman said: "I think you have to take whatever you're feeling inside and try and turn it into a positive.

"I was hot (angry)," he added. "It's trying to use that fire as a fuel to propel yourself forward. It was great. I think it just shows where my game is mentally right now that I was able to do that (on Thursday)."

Essential to turning adversity on the golf course into positive energy is 100pc confidence in your technique, which Tiger clearly used to have as he raced to 14 Major championship victories between 1997 and 2008.

McIlroy appears to have found complete trust in his game once again after a period of obvious self-doubt through the dark first eight months of 2013.

This process has come on in leaps and bounds in recent times, advanced considerably by the huge amount of work McIlroy's put in since restoring golf as the No 1 priority in his life in May.

The frustrations he endured on his first three holes yesterday might have left McIlroy slump-shouldered and pouting in the not too distant past. Yet nothing appears capable of puncturing his composure and serenity right now.

He was unlucky when a decent 10-foot putt for birdie wavered almost imperceptibly off course midway to the hole and then turned left too late to drop.

McIlroy paused a moment or two to look quizzically at his line as he walked towards the next. Playing companions Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson both birdied the 10th and the Masters champion made it two on the trot at 11, making the Irishman's par look very pedestrian indeed.

BOGEY

A bogey followed at 12 after McIlroy hit a fairway metal off the tee well left into deep rough. Unable to steer his approach around the yawning front bunker, he hit a decent shot out of a patch of wet sand to nine feet, but two-putted for bogey.

Yet the longest word in the lexicon of US golf, 'bouncebackability', came to mind as McIlroy cracked-in a 12 foot putt for birdie three at 13; holed another eight-footer for par after missing the green at 14; then set-up another birdie at 15 with a super mid-iron shot to eight feet from the left rough.

Notice the pattern? McIlroy had to wait until his seventh hole, the 16th, before finding his first fairway off the tee. Surprisingly, given recent form with his putter, he missed from seven feet for birdie there.

However, paranormal service was resumed on the par-five 18th as McIlroy holed from 31 feet for the stunning eagle three that thrust him into the lead for the first time at Valhalla. The pattern continued on his homeward stretch. McIlroy bogeyed two after driving into rough but birdied seven and nine and might have finished with a hat-trick had his putt not stopped in the jaws.

The closest rival to his early clubhouse lead was Ryan Palmer, who completed his opening 36 holes in the company of Lowry on one-under, courtesy of the 70 he posted yesterday.

Lowry saluted Palmer for the superlative up and downs he made for par on the opening couple of holes after their day got off to a surreal start after the championship promoters, the PGA of America, completely misjudged the conditions as he course was hit by a torrential rainstorm.

Visibility was close to zero as Lowry hit the opening drive of round two off the first tee and after reaching his ball in the rain-sodden fairway, the Clara man noted to his dismay that, apart from an area around the flag, the majority of the first green was awash.

He made his displeasure plain to European Tour's chief referee John Paramor, who gave the 27-year-old a sympathetic hearing but instructions from above were clear, they'd have to press on.

Aiming for the dry area surrounding the flag, Lowry's approach fell a tad short and rolled back down into a swail fronting the green. Again, the exasperated Irishman made an appeal for sanity but to no avail.

When his ball got held-up in the fringe 18 feet from the cup, a reporter on the scene clearly heard the exasperated Lowry tell Paramor: "Tiger Woods wouldn't be sent out in this."

After several attempts were made to squeejee the green sufficiently for Palmer to hit his 27 foot putt, Paramor's radio communications to HQ at last yielded a result and play was called to a halt. Initially it stopped for 10 minutes to allow the rain to abate but the championship didn't restart until 50 minutes later, by which time Valhalla excellent drainage system was working to good effect.

"I think to be honest, when we were playing the first hole, it was a joke," said Lowry, who made bogey at one when play eventually resumed; dropped another shot at the next and, as he admitted later: "My head was a bit off all day. The start we had unsettled me a lot and there's not much more I can say really.

"It was just a grind for me all day. I didn't play great but I suppose I made a decent par at the last after hitting it in the water there.

"I'll be here for the weekend hopefully and tomorrow maybe I'll shoot a decent score."

Lowry did not believe play should have started as "the rain was hammering down" and this view was endorsed by Palmer.

"Wasn't quite sure if we should have teed-off, to be honest with you, you could barely see the fairway," said Palmer (37), a three-time winner on the PGA Tour.

"We were questioning on the fairway on one why we'd had to hit into a puddle because it already was under water and why we had to hit the second shot into a green that's already half in standing water.

"They said 'that's just golf'. We're like 'tell the guy indoors that's making the decision to come and check it out, because it's wet."

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