Saturday 27 December 2014

McIlroy must followLefty's path back to glory

Embracing Mickelson's attitude instead of Tiger's can revitalise struggling star

Karl MacGinty

Published 18/07/2013 | 05:00

AT MUIRFIELD

FATE dealt Rory McIlroy an intriguing hand when he was 'drawn' to play with Phil Mickelson this morning in the first round of what promises to be one of the most fascinating British Opens in decades.

McIlroy's star is forever being hitched to that of his good friend and world No 1 Tiger Woods.

Yet as Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley recently suggested, McIlroy's swashbuckling style, golfing genius and roller-coaster form is more akin to that of Mickelson ... and by accepting that peaks and troughs are inevitable, he will make life on the fairways much easier for himself.

As he bids to burst out of the shadows which have enveloped him for much of 2013, McIlroy has a priceless opportunity over the next couple of days to note how Mickelson, at 43 an American golfing icon, handles himself on the course.

Especially in the face of adversity, which every man in the 156-strong field is likely to encounter over the next two days as Muirfield, bone-hard and playing as fast as a brush fire, singes reputations, modest or mighty.

Mickelson embraces the same philosophy as Harrington by attempting to smile even in the most extreme circumstances, which in the left-hander's case sometimes makes his expression look fixed and not a little spooky.

Yet those who dismiss Mickelson as a phoney have not seen him stand, sometimes for hours or more, signing autographs or posing for pictures, looking each person in the eye and saying "thank you" or "you're welcome" wherever appropriate.

INTERACTION

Almost without fail, he will acknowledge applause, another interaction with the public which has established Mickelson as one of golf's most universally popular performers. He is creating a legacy which is likely to stand to him long after his playing career is over.

Clearly, years of personal discipline and application have helped Mickelson turn what many of his peers regard as a mind-numbing chore almost into an art form.

It's part of being a professional sportsman to engage with his fans. Yet Tiger, one of the greatest golfers in history and a worthy 10/1 favourite to lift the Claret Jug for a fourth time next Sunday, has fallen short in this area.

If he is to rekindle and maintain the synergy he shared with the public, especially on the home front, as he romped to a second Major title and the top of the world rankings last year, McIlroy must follow the example of Mickelson, not Woods.

To his credit, McIlroy yesterday flatly dismissed an opportunity to wail 'why me?' amid the cacophony of criticism, or should we call it advice, from many past-masters, including Nick Faldo, Johnny Miller, Curtis Strange, Tony Jacklin and even his mentor Jack Nicklaus.

"I don't think that at all," insisted McIlroy, showing admirable perspective by adding: "The thing is, what's the big deal? I haven't had the best six months but it's okay. I'm fine. I've got a good life. So, you know, it doesn't bother me.

"I'm in a good place. I'm working hard and I feel I'm working on the right things. Sooner or later it'll turn around and I'll be back lifting trophies."

Yet a few moments later he gave a glimpse of the angst, the frustration, which on Sunday at last month's US Open led McIlroy to throw one club and bend another out of shape, by firing a barb at Faldo for suggesting he needed to "concentrate 100pc on golf".

"I saw what he said," McIlroy admitted. "That I should be on the course from nine to five. I actually was on the range at 6.15 yesterday morning and got out of the gym at 6.16pm, actually a 12-hour day compared to his eight-hour day.

"Nick should know how hard this game is at times. He's been in this position before and should know how much work we all put into it."

Mickelson and Woods both expressed warm support for McIlroy this week and he expects to draw from the latter's experience in recovering from career setbacks.

"Probably more than anyone else in the sport, Tiger has been scrutinised and criticised throughout his entire career ... it was only a couple of years ago he had dropped outside of the world's top 50 but he has worked his way back up and is now the best player in the world again. He has won four times this year.

"When everyone was saying that working with (coach) Sean Foley wasn't the right thing to do, he stuck with it. He had a plan in place and proved a lot of people wrong.

"These guys (Woods and Mickelson) still play, they are still practising and still competing.

"It seems like a few guys have forgotten in a short space of time how hard you have to work and how tough this game can be."

McIlroy has played too few tournaments this season but he has worked exceptionally hard over the past 10 days in an effort to restore his competitive edge for the British Open.

He played a total of 108 holes on the Muirfield links, 18 when he clapped eyes on the links for the first time last Monday week; 27 the next day and 18 last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, winding down to just nine yesterday.

He also has spent hours working with coach Michael Bannon on the practice ground at nearby Archerfield.

"Promising," was the word McIlroy used to describe the state of his game entering one of the most intimidating and exciting arenas of them all.

"It's definitely heading in the right direction and I'm excited for the next few weeks, obviously starting with here, followed by a great stretch in the States, with Akron, the PGA and then the FedEx Cup series."

One strong source of optimism has been the prototype Covert VRS cavity-backed driver Nike have made for McIlroy.

"The new driver is slightly different to the one I had been using. Its head has a different shape," he explained, adding: "It's more of a pear shape but encourages the club to close over a little bit more. My bad driver this year had been losing it to the right, so this is encouraging the clubface to square up on impact."

It was his use of the term 'pear-shaped' instead of, let's say, 'tear-drop' which will make the golf cognoscenti smile, and not because McIlroy's driving has been 'pear-shaped' all year. Instead, this term perfectly fits the profile of his trusty old Titleist!

Depending on the wind, McIlroy expects to hit driver between five and seven times each day in hard and fast-running conditions which will make Muirfield, this queen among links courses, one of the greatest tests of strategy, shot-making and imagination ever seen at the British Open.

McIlroy relishes this challenge. However, one suspects he hasn't played enough tournament golf over the past month to be fully competitive this week, while Muirfield will demand vastly more patience than the Ulsterman has been able to muster in recent fraught months.

British Open,

Live, BBC2/Setanta Ireland, 9.0

Irish Independent

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