Irish tigers battle to take over the world
Harrington and McIlroy can step up in the absence of Woods
IT'S close to dusk in the Arabian Desert and shadows are stretching long when Rory McIlroy finally peels himself away from the presentation ceremony on the 18th green and gets back to the clubhouse.
A little gaggle of kids, all decked out in Munster rugby red, have been shep-herded into a quiet alcove just outside the locker-room door. As McIlroy appears, their mum asks Rory if he'd sign their autograph books.
"Sorry, I don't sign autographs for anyone wearing a Munster jersey," replies McIlroy, a self-confessed Ulster fan. "Just kidding," he adds with a chuckle, chatting easily with the woman as he scribbles his name in each book.
McIlroy is ludicrously fresh and in remarkably good humour for a guy who has just laboured under a sweltering desert sun for nearly five hours, before eventually finishing third in the Abu Dhabi Championship behind Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter.
Next stop the bar, perhaps, for a few thirst-quenchers with his mum, dad and his mates? Nope! McIlroy nips into the locker room for a quick change and bounces out minutes later, heading for the gym and a full session with his fitness trainer.
They may be separated by 18 years, three Majors and a host of other tournament titles, but Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington have been hewn from the same golfing bedrock.
Both are looking forward to outings of some significance on opposite sides of the planet this week -- McIlroy defends a professional title for the first time in Dubai and Harrington returns to action at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles after his 12-month Mulligan.
Harrington tees it up at the PGA Tour's Northern Trust Open fit and refreshed following his two-month mid-winter break, and Desert Classic champion McIlroy pitches up at The Emirates Club in buoyant form after his impressive seasonal debut in Abu Dhabi.
McIlroy (20) is the most exciting prospect in professional golf, and is scheduled to play his first shots as a full member of the US Tour in the Accenture Match Play at Dove Mountain, a desert course just outside Tucson, Arizona, in a fortnight's time.
By that point, World No 8 Harrington also will have two tournaments under his belt, ensuring he'll be well-prepared for, potentially, the first crossing of swords with McIlroy in what promises to be a season packed with battles royal between the two Irishmen.
Dublin's triple Major Champion might not have won on Tour in 2009 but the lessons learned in a season of two halves will stand to the 38-year-old in the coming months as he reminds the world he's a major force in his sport.
As he made his seasonal debut in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines near his home town San Diego last weekend, Phil Mickelson was being widely touted as the player most likely to fill the void left by Tiger Woods at the top of the game.
Under normal circumstances, the sterling work Mickelson has done with Butch Harmon to make his driving more consistent and his return to the familiar putting stroke of his youth (with the help of Dave Stockton) would establish him as a long-term contender for Tiger's perch on top of the world.
Yet Mickelson's priorities lie far from the golf course right now as his wife Amy and mother Mary continue their battles with breast cancer. His decision to skip the Accenture Match Play and spend the week at home with his children on their mid-term break is a case in point.
With so few of Mickelson's fellow Americans electrifying audiences at present, it probably will fall to Europe's finest to thrill US galleries in 2010, and no one is better qualified for this role than McIlroy, the most charismatic and exciting player in world golf at present, and Harrington, the toughest mentally and the most confident.
The prospect of them going head-to-head at The Masters or staring down Mickelson on Sunday afternoon at Augusta would be the dream of every Irish golf enthusiast and it's one which can come true.
Of course, McIlroy is still developing. After playing with the Holywood prospect and Kaymer in the final group last Sunday week at Abu Dhabi, Ian Poulter's appraisal was succinct.
"Rory doesn't know how really good he is," said the Englishman. "When he learns how to finish off (tournaments), he'll be virtually unbeatable."
Poulter has rarely spoken a truer word. For all his ability and the trappings of stardom acquired in 30 thrilling months as a professional -- the proverbial millions 'in the bank', a palatial home on 14 acres in Moneyreagh, and a Lamborghini and Audi RS in the garage -- McIlroy has absolutely no airs or edge to him.
He is remarkably matter-of-fact about his gift for golf and incredibly unspoilt. Universally popular with his peers on Tour, the kid is a walking, talking tribute to his parents, Rosemary and Gerry.
If he's everyone's friend, McIlroy is very much his own man. For example, the youngster's decision to accept a full US Tour card this year was very much his own and was taken against the advice of his agent Chubby Chandler and senior stablemates at International Sports Management, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke.
And if McIlroy had been nervous about his final-round confrontation with Poulter and leader-by-one Kaymer at Abu Dhabi, it didn't show. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he leaned nonchalantly on his golf bag and chatted easily with Ivor Robson, the Tour's venerable starter.
McIlroy is breathtakingly aggressive off the tee, looks comfortable on any fairway and is a much better putter than many suggest. Yet Poulter is correct: he has not yet picked-up the knack of sealing the deal on Tour.
Given his prodigious talent, it's remarkable McIlroy hasn't won in the 12 months since the Desert Classic. Even then, it took a remarkable act of bravery to keep Justin Rose at bay on the final hole.
Six ahead with six to play, the Irishman, who'd already endured a couple of close calls in Crans and Hong Kong, clearly began feeling pressure, especially when Rose eagled 13. Three bogeys in a row through 17 allowed his more experienced playing companion, who birdied 17, to get within one.
After laying up at the last, McIlroy was in danger of making another bogey when his approach bounded through the green into the back bunker. But he played the treacherous bunker shot impeccably, leaving himself a three-foot putt for victory.
Since that joyous Sunday in Dubai, McIlroy has registered nine top-five finishes on Tour, including a share of third at his first US PGA Championship. He made the cut in all four Grand Slams, illuminating Augusta National on Sunday afternoon with a brilliant tally of six birdies in his final 10 holes.
So much happened to McIlroy in 2009, as he raced to a thrilling showdown with an irrepressible Westwood in November's Dubai World Championship, he's infinitely more experienced and better equipped to deal with the challenge of defending the Desert Classic title this week than a year ago.
Okay, he should probably have pushed Christian Cevaer a little harder at The European Open. He might have put Simon Dyson under more pressure in last October's Dunhill Links at St Andrews. Yet McIlroy still made a creditable late foray on Sunday in Abu Dhabi.
After falling four shots off the searing pace set by Poulter and Kaymer over the opening holes, McIlroy kept his nerve and patience, playing the final 11 in five-under to get within one stroke of his two rivals playing the last.
He didn't win in Abu Dhabi but the message was clear. McIlroy is maturing and growing as a professional golfer ... and fast. He may have only one Tour victory to his name but, at age 20, he's still way ahead of the game.
But winning is never easy and the learning process never stops in golf, as Kenny Perry illustrated in Doha last Wednesday in a fascinating chat with reporters, before the Qatar Masters.
Asked if he'd been devastated after letting the opportunity of a first Major title slip through his fingers at last April's Masters, the 49-year-old US Ryder Cup veteran replied: "Augusta? I shed some tears but I still smile about it.
"To get a two-shot lead with two to play and give myself a chance to win the tournament I'd always wanted to win as a kid, you know what, I got too many good memories.
"I fought as hard as I could fight. I set a game plan. I stuck to my guns and it just happened too fast," Perry added. "I hit it close on 15 for a tap-in. To that point, I had been aggressive, I was always pushing. Yet when I got to 17, I tried to guide it and told myself all I had to do was make two pars and I'd won the Masters.
"I should have said, make another birdie and try to win the Masters. I tried to hang onto it rather than keep the way I'd been playing for 70 holes. I just got out of my element all of a sudden.
"I make two bogeys on 17 and 18 and lose in a play-off. So it was a great lesson I learned. I won the Travelers Championship not long after to get back in the winner's circle. It was sad, yet I still smile about it a lot."
Perry still harbours dreams of someday putting that hard-learned lesson to good use. "My window is closing," he admitted. "I don't know if I can ever get back in that position again -- but if I do, the outcome will be different."
Perry's honest and humble admission of his error at Augusta offered a wonderful insight into the psyche of a Tour professional and his ability to transform painful memories into positive energy.
Harrington is an absolute master at the art of moulding experience into motivation. Had Sergio Garcia sunk that putt for par and victory on the final green at Carnoustie in 2007, who knows where the Dubliner's career path might have gone? Yet now he's a multiple Major Champion, there's no longer any such thing as 'bad' experience for Harrington.
Stress, perhaps; frustration, for sure, but it all goes to good use, even those disastrous first six months of 2009 when Harrington missed a career-high eight cuts as his swing went out of kilter.
A remedial session with his venerable coach Bob Torrance on the Monday of British Open week at Turnberry would prove pivotal in Harrington's season, and underscore the significance of some 13 weeks they'd not worked together as the Dubliner competed in the US.
Over a recent cup of coffee, Harrington explained how the principal members of his backroom team complement each other, mentioning particularly the balance between the boffins and high-tech computer analysts at the Titleist Performance Institute in Southern California and the all-seeing eye of Torrance in Largs.
"Bob is very much the coach of what the golf clubs do and the TPI determine what the body is doing," explained Harrington, who last week returned from a 10-day pre-season stint with Torrance and fitness guru Dr Liam Hennessy in Portugal.
Just as significant, however, was a pre-Christmas visit by his coach to the TPI laboratory. "It was very helpful for Bob to see what they were doing in Carlsbad, that it's to make sure how the body is functioning efficiently in the golf swing, if there's any harm being done that could cause injury down the road.
"From what they have seen of players who have recurring injury problems, they know if something in the swing needs to be worked on -- that's what Liam does big-time and it makes me more sustainable," added the Irishman, revealing that he'd been trying to improve a flexibility issue in his back.
Explaining the significance of this work, Harrington went on: "Obviously I've learned a lot over the last number of years. I want to be competing when I'm 45 years old because I want to be able to put to good use the experience I'll gain over the next seven years.
"It'd be a pity to have learned a lot and not to be able to play the game," he said, words which should resonate with Perry, for one. "It's better to use that experience and have a go at another 30 or so Majors."
'If' is no longer a word Harrington uses in relation to the Majors. The certainty, confidence and know-how he brings to the most searching arena of them all establishes the Dubliner as a contender at every Major he's physically capable of playing.
These qualities provide solid foundation to his hopes of joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in history as a winner of the elusive Career Grand Slam.
The clash between McIlroy's irresistible talent and Harrington's unshakeable faith should illuminate Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St Andrews or Whistling Straits this year, and Major Championship venues for many seasons to come.