Thursday 23 March 2017

McIlroy heads up young revolution

Karl MacGinty

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy tees off at the third hole during the first round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship Photo: Getty Images
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy tees off at the third hole during the first round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship Photo: Getty Images

RORY McILROY recalls being just 10 years old when Sergio Garcia won the 1999 Irish Open at the tender age of 19.

Like everyone else, he was thrilled by Garcia's daredevil shot from close to the bough of a tree during that year's US PGA at Medinah and will never forget the loping run, skip and jump across the fairway which made 'El Nino' a byword for excitement in world sport.

Well 20-year-old McIlroy returned the compliment during yesterday's opening round of the Abu Dhabi Championship as he and Garcia played together for the first time on Tour in a dream three-ball with Sweden's Henrik Stenson.

Garcia certainly enjoyed the company of Europe's new El Nino, or 'An Buachaill' if you prefer, as they fired eight birdies each en route to spectacular 66s and a share of fourth place, one stroke behind co-leaders Ian Poulter, his fellow Englishman Richrd Bland and South Africa's Keith Horne.

Indeed, Ryder Cup star Stenson, the reigning US Players champion, was made to look pedestrian as he shot a modest 70.

"It was awesome," enthused Garcia, now 30, of an idyllic afternoon with McIlroy in the Arabian Desert. "It's good to have a chance to play with Rory. He's an unreal player, one whose name is going to be remembered in golf throughout the ages."

Golf doesn't get much better than this. Unrelenting sunshine, a cooling breeze, a classy golf course of some 7,500 yards, which is eminently playable for the professionals if they stick to the straight and narrow but potentially vicious should they stray into the rough. And let's not forget pristine greens that run true from dawn till dusk.

To make it really interesting yesterday, both McIlroy and Garcia had to shake off ring rust after their winter break, the Spaniard also feeling jabs of pain in his right hand as he hit shots in the early stages, a legacy of the tendon injury he aggravated badly by playing in last November's World Cup.

Garcia bogeyed the third and fourth but rebounded well with three birdies in the next four holes, while McIlroy was coasting along at four-under par when he took an ugly double-bogey six at 11.

If he'd been rattled by this setback, the Holywood starlet certainly didn't let it show as he whipped a superlative 6-iron tee shot about three feet past the pin for birdie at 12, following up with another at 13. Damage repaired!

"Yeah, I'm very happy," he said of his first competitive round of the new decade. "Apart from that loose tee shot at 11, it was really good. I made a mental error on the tee there, probably didn't hit the right club," McIlroy explained of the drive which slid right into deep trouble in thick undergrowth.

"I then tried to take too much on with the second shot," he added. After failing with that, the youngster finally took his medicine, a penalty drop out of trouble.

This sorry episode would have rattled many an older man but for McIlroy it merely served as an opportunity to show his remarkable resilience. "To drop two shots like that and then get them back on the next two holes, it's huge," he explained.

"That's the thing I've learned a lot of great players do. Once they make a mistake, they try to rectify it as soon as they can and I was able to do that, which really helped me get to six-under par."

Garcia and McIlroy both saw scope for improvement in yesterday's performance. "I made a lot of birdies and converted a lot of chances," said the Ulster prospect, whose ball striking appeared more consistent and impressive than Sergio's yesterday.

"If I can play like that and cut out the mistakes, I could score 63 or 64 out there," he added. Remarkably, so could many others in a high-class field which features eight of the world's top 14 players and 16 of golf's elite top-50.

It's a testament to the conveyor belt of talented youngsters coming onto the European Tour that four of the nine players tied for fourth place on six-under after the first round here are in their 20s (Garcia turned 30 on January 9).

They are Rhys Davies (24), a team-mate of McIlroy at the 2007 Walker Cup, Alexander Noren (27) of Sweden and Alvaro Quiros, who turned 27 yesterday, a birthday he shares with his caddie Alastair McClean.

For the record, the other 66s were posted by Peter Hanson (32), Daniel Vanscik (33), Stephen Dodd (43), and Paul Lawrie (40).

Four more talented players in their 20s, Martin Kaymer, Rafa Echenique, Louis Oosthuizen and Thomas Aiken, were clustered on five under, while Shane Lowry (22), was especially impressive, opening his first full year on Tour with a 68.

Lowry managed just seven holes of golf during his four-week winter break at home but his decision to travel to Dubai last Thursday for a few day's work with his coach Neil Manchip paid off in spades as he landed five birdies and posted only one bogey.

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His round featured several wonderful shots from tee to green, not least the phenomenal 4-iron he hit to inside two feet for his first birdie of the day at the long second, or the 3-wood he slammed from centre fairway to the heart of the green to set up his closing birdie four at 18. Few made that final green in two.

Yet the most impressive weapon in Lowry's armoury is his lob wedge. The Clara man's confidence in his ability to get out of any tight corner with this clubs allows him fire aggressively at flags with little thought of the new V-grooves being enforced for the first time on the European Tour this week.

One guy who certainly rediscovered the ability to grind a score out of adversity yesterday was Darren Clarke, whose short game was almost Harrington-esque as he matched the two-under-par 70s posted by his illustrious playing companions, Graeme McDowell and Anthony Kim.

To Kim's credit, no mention was made of the 2008 Ryder Cup. "You could say our relationship got off to a rocky start at Valhalla," McDowell joked. "AK (Kim) and Phil Mickelson gave myself and Padraig (Harrington) a beating but he didn't bring it up in conversation and neither did I."

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