Friday 24 March 2017

From agony to ecstasy

Karl MacGinty

THE two images are indelible. They are burned into the mind's eye and remained vivid throughout the wild and noisy tumult which followed Rory McIlroy's coronation at Congressional.

The first is of a young man utterly crushed by misfortune, his head tucked into the crook of his left arm as he stood on the 13th tee at Augusta National on Sunday, April 10. Amen Corner indeed!

The second is of the smile McIlroy flashed to his father as the moment of victory approached on the final green last Sunday.

Never mind the presentation ceremony, the lifting of the cup or the joyous toasts from it in the wee-small hours... that smile between son and father was the crowning moment of the 2011 US Open.

Exactly 70 days separated the Masters meltdown which broke McIlroy's heart and his return in triumph at Congressional.

The 22-year-old's astonishing recovery from wounds which would leave most golfers scarred for life represents an epic journey... one in which the youngster showed the morale strength and resilience which many believe eventually will help him become one of the greatest players in history.

FOR one awful moment it appeared as if McIlroy had been broken by the horrors which had just befallen him. In fact, he shed no tears. Instead, he merely swept up the shattered pieces of his broken dream at the Masters that Sunday and moved on.

Yet for all his courage, grace, dignity and strength in its aftermath, it seemed McIlroy would forever be haunted -- irreparably scarred by his implosion that afternoon.

Last Sunday, such thoughts would be banished as this son of Ulster whipped a vast throng of American golf fans into near-frenzy with his march to victory at the US Open.

The moment from that afternoon which will live forever is the one when McIlroy, just after hitting his first putt from the front edge of the final green, looked up and plainly caught the eye of his father Gerry in the sea of faces behind the fairway ropes.

There was the flash of a smile, maybe the barest hint of an impish wink, and the pain a caring father must have felt for his son on that 13th tee at Augusta National was salved forever.

"I was looking for him. I knew he was going to be somewhere close after I hit my second shot and was walking down the 18th fairway," said McIlroy as he cradled the US Open trophy moments after his first Major championship win.

"I was looking for him over on the left side somewhere. I just spotted him before I hit my first putt. And then when I put it up to whatever it was, a foot or whatever, I looked to him and gave him a little smile, a little grin."

After 72 holes in which he zipped around Congressional like Pac-Man, crunching US Open records and gobbling-up birdies with consummate ease, comparisons inevitably have been drawn with Tiger Woods in his pomp and his march to victory at Pebble Beach in June 2000.

Indeed, some rate McIlroy so highly, they equate the impact of his win last weekend with Tiger's seismic breakthrough onto the world stage at the 1997 Masters.

Yet, despite its global significance, the most compelling element of McIlroy's win last Sunday is the astounding tale of this young man's return from the abyss.

GETTING STRAIGHT BACK ON THE BIKE

THE first steps in Rory McIlroy's rehabilitation were taken barely 12 hours after his implosion at Augusta as he flew with newly crowned Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel and British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen to Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysian Open.

McIlroy's ability to square-up to the TV cameras within minutes of the most heart-rending setback of his fledgling career helped ease fears for the youngster's future.

Schwartzel, a pleasant, affable South African, would later confess he'd felt a little awkward about wearing the famous Green Jacket in front of McIlroy on the plane.

Yet the Irishman broke the ice by insisting Schwartzel should put on the jacket and pose with him for a photo, which McIlroy immediately put out on Twitter. "It was so brave of Rory to do that, I was impressed," he'd say.

McIlroy and the two South Africans were paid a lucrative, six-figure appearance fee for playing in Malaysia but many considered this journey halfway round the world to be a brutal imposition on the Ulsterman so soon after Augusta.

Yet it would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as McIlroy began the healing process with a spirited third-place finish behind Italian prodigy Matteo Manassero that week.

"I think that's one of two things we were really lucky with," McIlroy's agent at International Sports Management, Chubby Chandler, explained.

"That Rory went to Malaysia got him away from Britain and sitting down thinking about it. It got him back on the bike and he finished third there, which was incredible.

"It softened things a bit so by the time I went and saw him the following Wednesday week, Rory said to me, 'I'm not sure what all the fuss is about'.

"Secondly, I think going to Haiti the week before last was massive," Chandler went on. "If ever you needed things put in perspective, that was going to do it. If you want to realise golf is only a game, you go to Haiti. So I think those two things probably helped an awful lot."

McIlroy's first field trip as a sporting ambassador for UNICEF Ireland certainly yielded one unexpected dividend in US Open week when, inevitably, it deflected some of the focus at his pre-tournament media conferences away from the Augusta debacle.

While the player himself insisted throughout the week at Congressional that he'd been able to get over that calamitous final-round 80 at the Masters pretty quickly, the media and the US golfing public in general were fascinated to learn if this setback would have any effect on his future forays into the Major championship arena.

In McIlroy's own estimation, the most important facet of his recovery came within days of the Masters, when he sat down and fearlessly appraised all that had gone wrong that fateful Sunday and what he needed to do to make sure it never recurred.

"I was very honest with myself and I knew what I needed to do differently," he said. "And that was the thing. I had a clear picture in my mind of what I needed to do and where my focus needed to be when I got myself in that position again."

UNDER

STOCKTON'S WING

TEN days after Augusta, on Wednesday, April 20, Chandler sat down with McIlroy in the kitchen of the young man's home in the Co Down village of Moneyreagh, to pinpoint what had gone awry at the Masters and how to put it right.

"We didn't really discuss anything to do with what had happened on Sunday until a week on Wednesday afterwards and then it was good because then there's no emotion," he recalled.

Among the decisions taken was for McIlroy to work with Dave Stockton, the former US PGA champion and American Ryder Cup captain, whose approach to the dark art of putting is more intuitive than other short-game gurus and probably would suit a naturally gifted and instinctive player.

They had their first session together early in the week of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, where McIlroy's defence of the title he won so impressively in 2010 ended on Friday night.

Yet the two men bonded well and the 69-year-old Texan travelled to the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to work with McIlroy once again, helping to bed-in routines which would lead, ultimately, to an incredibly assured performance by the youngster on the greens at Congressional.

If McIlroy could hardly buy a putt during the white heat of Masters Sunday at Augusta, he seemed to hole-out with imperious ease those crucial putts of between eight and 12 feet which so frequently occur at the US Open.

"The work I've done with Dave Stockton has been more about how to approach a putt and not focusing on technique so much," explained McIlroy, who still used a longer putter at the US Open and putted out of a slightly more upright stance and with a slightly altered grip.

He went on: "We worked more on green reading, the routine, and everything like that.

"People often said to me, 'we think you're too quick on the greens.' But he thought the opposite. You're taking too much time. Why are you taking three practice strokes? Don't take any practice strokes anymore. See the target, where I want to hit it, and just go with it.

"If I have any sort of technical thing in my thought, in my stroke, it would just be to keep the back of my left hand going towards the target, and that's all we really worked on. It seemed to work."

Another telling feature from Sunday at the Masters, McIlroy admits, was his failure to speak with caddie JP Fitzgerald that afternoon as the tension of the occasion took its toll and his action became increasingly fast and nervy.

"That was a huge thing I learned at Augusta. I need to keep talking to JP and have conversations going down the fairways about something completely different from golf... it takes my mind of things and stops me getting too involved in in what I'm doing," he said on Sunday. "It seemed to work out for me this week."

HUGGED BY THE GOLDEN BEAR!

AS Father's Day drew to a close on Sunday, Jack Nicklaus reflected with satisfaction on the first of what he believes could be many Major championship wins for McIlroy, a player he warmly describes as a son in golf.

"In some ways, I guess I feel almost like a father figure in the game of golf," Nicklaus said. "I consider all these kids like sons of mine. I always feel that any time I have a young man who has come to talk to me, whether it is my son or someone else's son, I love to see them do well; love to see them play well, to improve, and to succeed.

"Once they have that success, I love to see their ability to handle it the right way. And they all have handled it beautifully. I feel confident Rory will do the same."

Vitally, Nicklaus put a fatherly arm around McIlroy's shoulder at his own Memorial Championship last month in Dublin, Ohio, helping reinforce the youngster's faith in the changes and improvements he felt he needed to make in his approach.

"I feel as if I have a pretty good relationship with Jack," McIlroy confirmed. "He just said to me, there's going to be a lot of pressure on you, but you've got to put a lot of pressure on yourself early. That's what he always did. He always put a lot of pressure on himself to do well."

Effectively, it confirmed McIlroy's belief that he needed to seize the initiative at the Majors; to constantly set himself personal targets on the golf course and to aggressively pursue them all the way through to the finish.

"The first three days at Augusta, I played aggressively. I played smartly but I played aggressively to my targets and aggressively to the spots I wanted to hit it," he explained. "I'd never led going into Sunday at a Major before so I didn't really know what to do -- I started to play defensively, and that's when things can go wrong."

Like the rest of the golfing world, Nicklaus was particularly impressed with the way McIlroy sustained his challenge throughout the week at Congressional to become, like him, a Major champion at the tender age of 22.

"Obviously, it was an unbelievable performance," Nicklaus said. "I thought he played just fantastic golf. It is so great to see a nice young man play well, to do well.

"We are all aware that he has been there before, but he showed that he learned from his mistakes, and he showed that he knew how to play the last two days with a big lead. Not only did Rory know how to play with a big lead, he played it confidently, played it smartly, and he never put himself in position to be in trouble."

AT LAST, FATE CONSPIRES IN McILROY'S FAVOUR

CONGRESSIONAL could not have been better suited to Rory McIlroy, with what Chandler describes as "all its slinging hook shots. I think he finds that easy."

Mother Nature then played her part, defying the efforts of the United States Golf Association to set up the course hard and fast for the US Open with repeated downpours.

The Blue Course played long and soft with receptive greens providing McIlroy with the perfect target for his high-trajectory iron shots.

It all meant the youngster could bring his greatest weapon, the driver, to bear more often and to a greater effect than one might usually expect at the US Open.

How good is McIlroy off the tee? "We call him BMW on the European Tour," explained Graeme McDowell, the defending champion at Congressional. "Because Rory's the ultimate driving machine!"

"I think the course did me a few favours this week with the condition of it. If this golf course was firm and hard, I don't think anyone could have got to 16-under-par," McIlroy candidly admitted... yet, vitally, he still played it eight shots better than anyone else in an elite field.

When telling questions were asked on the golf course, McIlroy consistently had the answers. After opening with a problem-free 65 on Thursday, he established a record 36-hole lead with a 66 the following day, as much with an exacting up-and-down for par out of a greenside bunker for par at 11 as a phenomenal eagle two from the fairway at eight.

On Saturday, he settled the nerves with two more hugely important early par saves, laying up from the rough at three and out of a greenside bunker at four as he stretched his lead to eight through 54 holes with a round of 68.

Then Sunday's acid test. Chandler says McIlroy was "incredibly relaxed and hitting the ball better than he had all week" on the range before his final round. He proved it with a birdie at one, which contrasted sharply with that opening bogey at Augusta.

If a triple-bogey seven at hole 10 in Augusta sparked his implosion at the Masters, McIlroy went within inches of acing the par-three 10th at Congressional, leaving himself a tap-in birdie.

After 70 days of gestation, a golfing superstar had been reborn.

Irish Independent

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