Friday 22 September 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Watching Rory McIlroy toiling like a high-handicap hacker has fans baffled

Rory McIlroy reacts as he finishes his round on 9 over par during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club
Rory McIlroy reacts as he finishes his round on 9 over par during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club

Dermot Gilleece

As a wild westerly swept towards Dundrum Bay, the words of Gary Player suddenly came to mind. “If the wind starts to blow around here, it is going to tame lions.”

This was the Black Knight’s comment from very much more benign conditions during the 2000 Senior British Open at Royal Co Down. Vast experience told him the sort of punishment a great links could inflict. In today’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, it duly came to pass.

There was a temptation to put it down to lack of experience around a course where familiarity is fundamental towards achieving the comfort an aspiring tournament winner desires. As a 21-year-old from Hartlepool, Graeme Storm certainly had it when capturing the British Amateur title at Newcastle in 1999. “This is the best course I have ever played,” he enthused afterwards. “It’s better than Turnberry, Muirfield, any of them.”

As he entered the front nine this afternoon, having started at the 10th, he headed for home with the wind-speed having abated to a fresh breeze. By that stage, however, his challenge was already on a ruinous route, after bogeys on the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th had culminated in a back nine of 40.

28 May 2015; Rory McIlroy putts on the 5th green. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Rory McIlroy putts on the 5th green. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Rory McIlroy reacts as he finishes his round on 9 over par during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Rory McIlroy reacts to a missed putt on his final hole as he finished the day on 9 over par during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Darren Clarke on the 9th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Rory McIlroy reacts to a missed putt on his final hole as he finished the day on 9 over par during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Danny Willett watches his second shot on the 9th during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Danny Willett on the 9th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Rory McIlroy reacts to a missed putt on his final hole as he finished the day on 9 over par during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Rory McIlroy reacts to a missed putt on his final hole as he finished the day on 9 over par during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Miguel Angel Jimenez plays from the rough on the 18th during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Lee Westwood watches his tee shot from the 17th during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Graeme McDowell plays from the rough on the 18th during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Danny Willett watches his tee shot on the 10th during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Martin Kaymer plays from the rough on the 12th during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Lee Westwood watches his approach shot to the 18th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Lee Westwood (left) and Graeme McDowell on the 18th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Rory McIlroy stretches on the 11th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Rory McIlroy plays onto the 11th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Rory McIlroy watches a shot from the rough on the 18th during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Rory McIlroy putts on the 10th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club, Newcastle. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday May 28, 2015. See PA story GOLF Irish. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial use. No false commercial association. No video emulation. No manipulation of images.
File photo dated 27-09-2014 of Europe's Graeme McDowell. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday May 27, 2015. Former US Open champion Graeme McDowell believes Royal County Down could become the second course in Northern Ireland on the Open Championship rota. Mike Egerton/PA Wire.
28 May 2015; Rory McIlroy, left, and Martin Kaymer shake hands on the 18th green after finishing their rounds. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: John Dickson / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; A general view of large crowds on the course. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Rory McIlroy walks to the 14th tee box. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Martin Kaymer, left, and Rory McIlroy sit at the 4th tee box during their round. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Martin Kaymar plays his third shot from the rough on the 12th. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland, on the 10th green. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Graeme McDowell tees off at 1st. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Lee Westwood, England, on the 11th tee box. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the rough to the 18th green. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland, plays his second shot to the 17th green. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Rory McIlroy tees off on the 16th. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, right, in conversation during their round. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Darren Clarke, Northern Ireland, walks from the 16th tee box. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Rory McIlroy tees off on the 13th. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Martin Kaymar, right, and Rory McIlroy make their way to the 11th fairway. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; A large gallery watches the day's play with the Mourne mountains as a backdrop. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Lee Westwood, England, watches his tee shot on the 13th tee box. Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship 2015, Day 1. Royal County Down Golf Club, Co. Down. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Rory McIlroy had endured the same torment, having earlier bogeyed the 11th in 41 strokes for that stretch. And you could imagine baffled fans, scratching their heads at the sight of the world’s top player toiling like a high-handicap hacker.

How could this happen? How could a player who shot a comfortable 61 around Quail Hollow less than two weeks ago, slump to a wretched 80? I remember thinking the same thoughts when watching Seve Ballesteros, later in his career, struggling to keep his ball on the same course, much less the fairway in play. And for us mortals, the answer is that there is no answer. Great players do things we can’t hope to understand.

In similar circumstances at Fota Island last year, when he opened with a dispiriting 74, McIlroy said: “I’m never going to have the intensity of Nick Faldo or Tiger (Woods).” In other words, don’t expect me to grind out scores week after week. It’s simply not in my nature.

Golf at the highest level is all about margins, very tight margins, especially in difficult conditions. Let your timing slip ever so slightly out of synch, and a high wind will transform a narrow miss into a frightful mess.

The European Tour attempted to protect the players as best they could, by reducing the speed of perfect greens to a very moderate 10.0 on the Stimpmeter. But even at that, a spirit level would have been necessary to detect subtle borrows around the hole.

All in all, it was a splendid golfing challenge - from outside the ropes.

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