Wednesday 28 June 2017

How could Rory McIlroy shoot a comfortable 61 around Quail Hollow less than two weeks ago and slump to a wretched 80?

Great players do things we can’t hope to understand, says Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy finds trouble on the 18th hole during the second round of the Irish Open
Rory McIlroy finds trouble on the 18th hole during the second round of the Irish Open

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.

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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