Tuesday 17 October 2017

McGinley and McIlroy hold key to 'Fortress Europe'

Paul McGinley chats with Rory McIlroy during practise at Gleneagles
Paul McGinley chats with Rory McIlroy during practise at Gleneagles

Karl MacGinty

Ireland has punched like a Mike Tyson at the Ryder Cup. When it comes to landing the knockout blow, few countries can match this small island's fabled history.

This proud legacy was built by Eamonn Darcy at Muirfield Village in 1987, Christy O'Connor Jnr at the Belfry in 1989, Philip Walton at Oak Hill in 1995, Paul McGinley at The Belfry in 2002 and Graeme McDowell at Celtic Manor in 2010.

Yet two Irishmen will have an impact on this weekend's 40th Ryder Cup even more profound than anything achieved by their exalted antecedents.

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As we approach the end of a year in which Rory McIlroy (25) has developed impressively into the world's most formidable golfer, he is ready now to impose his authority on one of the most mentally challenging and stressful arenas in all sport.

From nervous, uncertain rookie at Celtic Manor in 2010 to support player in Ian Poulter's 'Miracle at Medinah', McIlroy has impressed captain Paul McGinley and everyone in the home camp with his affable, calm self-assurance.

From this morning, amid the butterflies and thunder of Day 1, expect this remarkably composed young man to make Gleneagles his stage, with all the others, Poulter included, mere players upon it.

With respect to McIlroy's renewed best friend, Graeme McDowell, home captain McGinley is the other Irishman who will exert - and, indeed, already has stamped - his influence on this event.

Those who feared McGinley might be overshadowed by his legendary opposite number, Tom Watson (65) didn't know or sorely underestimated the Dubliner.

Old Tom is one of golf's greats, a gentleman with steel in his heart and his eyes. Yet, sometimes this week, he appeared close to exasperation with the daily media duties and other demands faced by the modern captain, as opposed to 21 years ago, when he led the US to their most recent victory in Europe, the last Ryder Cup he attended.

Conversely, McGinley gives the impression of a man in his element, with little more to do than push the buttons on the well-oiled machine he has assembled over the past 20 months.

McGinley says he has drawn heavily from experience at five of the past six Ryder Cups, three as player (2002, '04 and '06) and two as vice-captain (2010 and 2012), taking the template left by his predecessors and adding a few embellishments of his own.

In fact, the European players have been taken aback by McGinley's all-embracing efficiency. Perhaps the most-telling compliment was paid by Martin Kaymer when he said: "The way Paul McGinley is when he talks to us, the way he is to every individual on the team, is very, very helpful.

"In fact, I'm a little bit surprised how much he has taken care of every single player. It is very brilliant," added the two-times Major champion, who played at Celtic Manor and, famously, sank the putt that retained the Ryder Cup in Chicago.

"As a German, I particularly like how thorough Paul has been this week. Everything has been planned. For example, anyone not playing this morning will know exactly what they are doing in the afternoon and can prepare accordingly," added Kaymer.

While captains can lose Ryder Cups - evidence Mark James at Brookline, hapless Hal Sutton at Oakland Hills and bumbling Nick Faldo in Valhalla - only players can win them. In that regard, it's difficult, though certainly not impossible, to see McGinley's team not providing him with the victory this weekend his all-embracing efforts so richly deserve.

Especially in front of 45,000 hugely excited people each day and on a course which may have been designed in the American image by Jack Nicklaus in 1993 (then redesigned in 2011) but is set up this week to play like a typical European Tour lay-out, with narrow fairways, deep rough and, by PGA Tour standards, relatively slow greens.

McGinley also has carefully set the mood of his team to deal with the unfamiliar role of favourites at the Ryder Cup, significantly inviting Alex Ferguson on Tuesday to regale his team with football tales and, pointedly, key factors in the building of 'Fortress Old Trafford'.

"There are a number of similarities with how Manchester United played and that's why I sought him out," explained McGinley. "This wasn't a case of him coming in out of nowhere. We'd been talking for 18 months, were very specific in what we wanted to do and he was absolutely fantastic in getting the message across."

Ferguson's contribution was one of a raft of measures employed by McGinley to relate an "attitude of mind" in which players are inspired by being favourites, welcome it as a challenge and harness it to boost confidence, not as a cue for complacency.

Instead of Europe drawing strength and an esprit de corps from being underdogs, Watson and his players can access that siege mentality. We saw an element of it, perhaps, in team leader Phil Mickelson's acid pop at McIlroy, when he said: "Not only are we (Americans) able to play together, we also don't litigate against each other."

"I got a couple of jabs back at Phil at the Gala Dinner (in Glasgow on Wednesday night)," McIlroy said yesterday. "We had a few laughs. He took it well. It's no big deal."

Though Mickelson's runner-up finish behind McIlroy at the PGA was the solitary highlight of his worst year on the US Tour, the 44-year-old could come out swinging haymakers today if he and Keegan Bradley play with the same chemistry they did at Medinah.

Bradley and Mickelson are just two of seven players urged by Watson to 'seek redemption' for Medinah and the pairing of two-times Masters champion Bubba Watson and former US Open-winner Webb Simpson bears formidable potential.

However, the massive strength in depth of McGinley's team can be gauged from the pairings he put-up for this morning's fourballs. Watson and Simpson face a formidable challenge in the shape of World No 4 Henrik Stenson and No 6 Justin Rose in the opening match.

Bradley and Mickelson, meanwhile, must overcome McIlroy and World No 3 Sergio Garcia in a fourth game spiced by the Californian left-hander's verbal blitz.

One wonders if Poulter, playing in the third game with local hero and 39-year-old Ryder Cup rookie Stephen Gallacher, can rely on pure adrenaline to propel him out of this summer's form slump. One suspects Europe will not require him to rush to their rescue this weekend.

McIlroy is the leader of this team and, indeed, his generation in golf.

"In the team room, I'll be strong, opinionated and make sure my voice is heard," he said, clearly willing and now able to perform to his full potential in an arena which defied even the best effort of Tiger Woods.

As he proved in victory at the Hoylake Open, Bridgestone World Championship and PGA at Valhalla, McIlroy has become 'The Man'. His prodigiously long and accurate driving, pinpoint iron play and exemplary short game place him head and shoulders above the rest. The Ulsterman was born to lead Europe on the course.

McGinley advises anyone watching to buckle-up for the thrilling weekend on a course which is tailor-made for excitement. "Expect some very low figures, some eagles, a lot of birdies," he said. "The finish in Gleneagles is very exciting, with that driveable par-four 14th and two par-fives on the final three. Anything can happen on those last five holes."

But McGinley's Trojan work and the innovative way in which he has girded his team should convert Gleneagles into Fortress Europe.

Ryder Cup,

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