Monday 23 October 2017

Irish stars get studying for major Merion exam

Rory McIlroy during Round Two of the BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club. Photo: PA
Rory McIlroy during Round Two of the BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club. Photo: PA

Karl MacGinty

RORY McILROY and Graeme McDowell have visited Merion Golf Club, charting the course for next week's US Open, while Padraig Harrington renews his quest for confidence in Memphis today.

RORY McILROY and Graeme McDowell have visited Merion Golf Club, charting the course for next week's US Open, while Padraig Harrington renews his quest for confidence in Memphis today.

While McIlroy and McDowell prefer to bone-up on local knowledge the week before Major championships, Harrington has always preferred to sharpen his game for the big event by playing competitive golf.

For that reason, the Dubliner has played every edition of the FedEx St Jude Classic since 2007, when the tournament moved into its current slot on the PGA Tour schedule.

Still, there's a lot more at stake for the 41-year-old Irishman at TPC Southwind as his mid-season crash course in the dark art of belly-putting continues.

The decision by Harrington, first Golfing Ambassador to the Royal and Ancient and an outspoken opponent of anchoring, to take up this practice just as the world governing bodies moved to ban it, better illustrated the extent of his putting woes in recent years than any amount of statistics.

As Ernie Els and Masters champion Adam Scott readily attest, the long putter offers rapid relief from what Harrington aptly described last year as "the heebie-jeebies" ... but it still takes time to get fully comfortable with it.

When Harrington won his third Major in 13 months in August 2008, the question on everyone's lips was how many more might he win.

Five years later, after just one and a half modest wins (at the Asian Tour's Johor Open in 2010 and the 36-hole PGA Grand Slam of Golf last October), one wonders how much longer must Harrington remain in his personal purgatory – and how much more frustration can he endure.

After missing the cut at last month's Masters, Harrington wielded a belly putter for the first time at the Wells Fargo Championship but missed the weekend. He played all four rounds at The Players and again at the Byron Nelson but finished 25th and 48th respectively. Having broken 70 only once in his last 12 rounds, Harrington needs to rediscover his scoring touch if he's once again to start thinking big.

Harrington at least knows TPC Southwind well, taking a top-15 finish there last year and a share of fourth in 2008. He'll also be in good company for the next couple of days as he plays with tournament favourite Phil Mickelson, one of five players from the world's top 25 in action this week. The others are defending champion Dustin Johnson, FedEx Cup holder Brandt Snedeker and European Ryder Cup heroes Ian Poulter and Peter Hanson.

ICONIC

Like Tiger Woods, Scott and Snedeker, who visited Merion last week, Mickelson took time out to run the rule over this year's iconic US Open venue.

Unlike Woods, who endured 18 holes of persistent rain in Philadelphia, Mickelson played under clear skies on Monday, as did McIlroy on Tuesday and again yesterday, when McDowell took the opportunity to refresh his memory of the course.

Regardless of his poor form in 2013, McIlroy's confidence in his ability to turn the corner remains undimmed.

After posting a sweet 67 at Oak Hill during Monday's courtesy visit as reigning champion to this year's US PGA venue, the 24-year-old insisted there was no comparison between this year's travails and the summer form slump he endured last year.

"It's different. I'm in a better place with my swing and my game now, whereas at this point last year I wasn't showing any real signs of promise and felt like I didn't know if I'd ever play good again.

"I'm definitely not too far away and when it all clicks into place one week, I should be off and running," added McIlroy, though he admitted: "Yeah, it's been a little bit of a frustrating year."

McIlroy's prospects next week may hinge on the weather. If rain softens Merion, he could carve up this historic course like he did Congressional during his record-breaking 2011 US Open win.

Lyoness Open, Day 1

Sky Sports 2, 10.0 / Sky Sports 3, 3.0

FedEx St Jude Classic, Day 1

Live, Sky Sports 3, 8.0

Irish Independent

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