Friday 22 September 2017

McDowell in the eye of perfect storm at Portrush

Karl MacGinty

GRAEME McDOWELL'S barrel chest looked fit to burst with pride as he cast his eye across the crowded links at Royal Portrush yesterday and savoured an occasion he'd long dreamed would come to his home town.

All Ireland believes the British Open should some day return to this mystic corner of the North's Causeway Coast and the atmosphere so far this week on the Dunluce Links certainly has been reminiscent of golf's oldest and biggest Major.

Excitement will build to fever pitch today when more than 27,000 people will pack Portrush for the opening round of the first event in European Tour history to sell out for all four days.

Even in its halcyon days at Portrmarnock, Royal Dublin and Woodbrook, the Irish Open never witnessed anything like this ... there is an overwhelming sense that we are at the dawn of a new era in this august event.

The figures are mind-boggling.

Factor

Add several thousand 'juniors', who are admitted free, to that daily total; factor in the 25,000-plus who've watched the Tour stars practise so far this week (14,225 'daily' tickets were sold yesterday and an undetermined number of season-ticket holders turned up) and aggregate attendance figures will approach 150,000.

With Ulster's appetite for the first Irish Open on their soil since 1953 whetted by the Major championship feats of their favourite golfing sons, McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, this tournament will boast the best ever attendance at a golf event in Europe outside of the British Open.

The scale of the public's response to this event is best measured against the figures for the Tour's showpiece BMW PGA Championship, which recently attracted a crowd of 85,542 over four days of tournament play at Wentworth -- 108,000 have paid to watch the four rounds in Portrush.

It was stunning to see crowds up to 10 deep and overlining the fairway ropes as McIlroy, McDowell, Clarke, Padraig Harrington and other notables passed during yesterday's Pro-Am.

The perfect golfing storm has descended on Portrush and at its epicentre is McDowell.

1 McDowell will need to find Pebble-hard focus to thrill family, friends and neighbours this weekend

Few players are better equipped for grinding out results on the world's fairways than McDowell, as he proved in victory at the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach and that Monday afternoon match-clincher at the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.

He will need every ounce of his famed mental strength to propel himself into contention this week -- it's just as well McDowell has been able to rely on his mum Marian's home cooking as he girds himself for one of the greatest challenges of his career.

Mrs McDowell had an Ulster fry waiting on the kitchen table when her son and his partner Kristen Stape arrived back from the States last Monday morning and he's resisted the lure of the Ramore Wine Bar or pints of Guinness every evening since.

"You know, when I got here on Monday morning, just driving down to the golf course, I got a great sense of pride to see this great event here," said McDowell.

"Growing up in Portrush you dream of having a big-type event here and it's the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of people.

"We joke about the Irish Open being the fifth Major, but any Irish player would be very proud to have it on his CV. To win in front of your home fans is a very special thing and it's exaggerated even more this week in my home town and on a golf course I've grown up on and feel I know very well.

"There's added pressure, so I have to get on the right side emotionally this week. I've got to get my focus, my business edge, right from the word go, because if I don't, it'd be very easy just to enjoy the craic."

2 Could there be any more perfect stage for Rory McIlroy to cast off his recent poor form and banish doubts about his fighting spirit?

It was stunning to see crowds 10 deep and more lining fairway ropes and surrounding greens to watch Rory McIlroy play yesterday's Pro-Am in balmy conditions.

There's no doubting McIlroy's status as the brightest star in world golf, despite a haphazard recent run of form which saw the 23-year-old surrender his US Open title at Olympic as he missed his fourth cut in five events.

McIlroy yesterday admitted with trademark honesty his determination to show more grit when things go against him on the golf course, as seen on Saturday and Sunday at April's US Masters and a couple of other occasions since.

"Definitely in the past, if things haven't gone my way, the fight goes out of me pretty quickly," he said. "That's something I'm working on and something I'm trying to get better at."

While McIlroy withered under an intense spotlight at the last two Irish Opens in Killarney, he insisted that Portrush will witness a different, more positive character this weekend.

"To be honest, the last couple of years I didn't feel very comfortable with the tag of home favourite," he conceded. "This year I really want to embrace that -- it's an advantage to be playing at home, not just for me, and it's something I really have to try and embrace this week."

Should he manage to do that, and the endless hours of work he's recently put in with coach Michael Bannon, plus a new driver, permit McIlroy to play up to his potential on a course where he shot a record-shattering 61 at age 16, it won't matter how hard the wind blows at Portrush.

3 Hopefully, the wind will blow, as forecast, from different directions on all four days ... and today's rain will not be as severe as expected.

That stunning 61 which McIlroy posted in qualifying for the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur Championship led to the revamp of the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush into a 7,143-yard test fit for the game's elite professionals.

"I can remember every shot," McIlroy revealed yesterday, adding with a smile: "I missed a six-footer on the first for birdie, so it could have been better."

News of that round went around world golf like a seismic shockwave. McDowell was preparing for the British Open at St Andrews that July when he heard of McIlroy's epic effort.

"When I heard this 16-year old upstart had shot 61, my first question was 'which course was it on, the Valley?' When they said: 'No,' I was like 'Okay, this kid might be special.'

"I took notice of Rory then and once again a couple of years later when he was taking cash out of my pocket. Definitely he's part of the reason the golf course here has been modernised. They have Rory-proofed this place."

Local resident Clarke said proudly of Portrush: "I doubt we'll play a better course on the European Tour this year."

Yet even if it's playing relatively soft and long after recent rain, like any of the world's greatest links, Portrush relies on sea breezes for protection.

So, blow wind, blow, this week and make this a challenge which seaside specialists like Clarke, McDowell and Harrington can relish ... along with the spectators.

4 Despite a field packed with world-class visitors, a 'home' win on Sunday would bring an unforgettable occasion to a dream conclusion.

There's no shortage of players with the craft in their hands and the gift to see the special shots which make all the difference on the links.

Scotland's Paul Lawrie and America's John Daly are two such figures -- their victories at the British Open make these two vastly experienced performers stand out among the 10 Major champions playing this week.

Lawrie, the 1999 British Open champion at Carnoustie, certainly knows how to perform when the going gets windy and tough, as he proved at this year's Qatar Masters.

Meanwhile, some of 1995 St Andrews winner Daly's play in recent times has been almost as eye-catching as his garish trousers.

Perhaps, though, we should look no further than defending champion Simon Dyson, whose heart soared when he heard of the event's move to Royal Portrush. Reared on the classic old 'inland links' at Ganton, in Yorkshire, he relishes golf at the seaside.

There are several strong performers on the home team, particularly Michael Hoey and the resurgent Harrington, while Waterville native David Higgins (39) played so well in achieving 10th place at Wentworth, he cannot be discounted.

Though Clarke might find inspiration here to shake himself out of his troubling torpor since last July's British Open triumph at Sandwich, this month's US Open runner-up McDowell still appears to be the man in perfect form to give his family friends and neighbours a lifelong thrill.

5 That the R&A will be left with no choice but to accept Royal Portrush as a viable venue for the British Open.

No matter who lifts the trophy, the Irish Open and Royal Portrush no doubt will emerge winners from what promises to be an overwhelming week on the Causeway Coast.

Harrington insists that this week's tournament should not be seen as a 'final trial' for Portrush and hopes of bringing the British Open back across the water for the first time since 1951.

One merely hopes that if the event proves to be as successful as all the indicators suggest, the official R&A 'observers' will go back to St Andrews convinced that Royal Portrush and the golfing community in Ireland are worthy of more serious consideration as British Open hosts than that already given!

Irish Open,

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