Sport Golf

Friday 22 August 2014

McIlroy on the money with the Bear's mentoring

Published 11/11/2012 | 05:00

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Rory McIlroy fired a closing 65 to climb the leaderboard on the final day of the Singapore Open

Holywood star's latest exploits earning praise from the great Nicklaus, writes Dermot Gilleece

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The deed is effectively done. Only the final details remain in what seems set to become a surprisingly easy double for Rory McIlroy, the youngest player to win the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

And the imminent distinction has brought a ringing endorsement from Jack Nicklaus, who has taken a special interest in the player's recent development, to the point of being an invaluable mentor.

Having entered the Singapore Open more than €771,000 ahead of his closest challengers, McIlroy has set his sights on widening that margin when the storm-interrupted tournament is completed today. After two successive 70s, he covered the first nine of his third round in two-under to be tied 13th, five strokes behind leader Thomas Bjorn, who had played only three holes when darkness closed in yesterday.

Describing his performance as "a decent effort", McIlroy added: "I probably need a few more birdies tomorrow morning to get myself within a few shots of the lead going into the final round." Crucially, he is a stroke clear of Louis Oosthuizen who must win to retain even a slim chance of threatening the Ulsterman's dominance.

When the cut was made yesterday on 143 (+1), Michael Hoey (72, 66) was the only Irishman to join McIlroy, but proceeded to drop four strokes in the opening four holes of his third round. Shane Lowry, Pádraig Harrington and Peter Lawrie failed to get through.

Where last year's double-winner, Luke Donald, had to secure a knife-edge victory in this weekend's final PGA Tour event, the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Florida, McIlroy secured the American leg with several tournaments to spare. More significantly, however, he will complete the double at an age five months younger than Tiger Woods was in 1999.

Here, we distinguish between Europe's leading money winners and recipients of the Vardon Trophy, which goes to the top player in the Race to Dubai. Though Woods led Europe's money list on six occasions -- 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007 -- he couldn't claim the Vardon Trophy as a non-member of the tour.

As a consequence, Colin Montgomerie is credited with eight Order of Merit titles rather than six, while other Vardon Trophy winners to benefit from the Woods factor were Lee Westwood (2000), Retief Goosen (2002), Harrington (2006) and Justin Rose (2007). Such dominance by Woods and more recent double-winners became possible because of seven events -- the four Majors and three World Golf Championships -- common to both tours.

"Rory is determined not to leave any stones unturned about how he can improve what he's doing, and I think that's great," said the Bear, who led the US money list himself on six occasions, last week. "When you do what Rory has done, you welcome it. You go out and you say, 'Now that I'm the number one player in the world, I'm going to distance myself from those other guys. Which means I'll keep trying to get better; keep climbing that mountain'. It's great that Rory wants to be the best and is prepared to go after it."

It's an approach which is clearly serving him well. With average launches of 310.1 yards, he is ranked fifth behind Bubba Watson (315.5) in driving distance this year in the US, but tops the scoring with an average of 68.873 strokes for 60 rounds. And with 10 top-10 finishes (including four wins) from 16 PGA Tour events, he is joint leader of that category with Bo Van Pelt.

Having based himself at The Bear's Club in West Palm Beach, McIlroy makes regular contact with the great man. "First of all, I think he's got a great golf swing, and he plays golf the way I thought the game should be played," Nicklaus added. "He plays from the ground up, meaning that he uses all parts of his body.

"A lot of guys today are pretty big physically and they play mostly with their upper body; they don't use their lower body as much. Rory is not very big in stature so he needs to use his lower body, which he does very well. The other thing I like about him is that he wants to learn. Rory's come to me several times, wanting to sit down and talk. He's tried to pick my brain on different things. I'm very flattered that he wants to seek my thoughts or input.

"I'm also impressed that he wants to get better. He wants to improve what he's doing. That's how guys become great players. I asked a lot of questions as I grew up. I asked a lot of guys a lot of things, and he's doing the same thing. I think that's great."

Meanwhile, McIlroy attempted last week to dampen down speculation about a reported $250m, 10-year equipment deal with Nike. "I'm a Titleist player until the end of the year, and I've made no commitment to any company for next year," he said. "I have a process that we are working through, and you'll probably hear more about it in the next few weeks."

With golf equipment, it is widely acknowledged that where gifted players buy what they need, high-handicappers buy what's promoted, which makes the McIlroy endorsement so valuable. But dire warnings as to the dangers of making such a change, brought to mind the shrewd approach of Seve Ballesteros to these matters.

At the peak of his powers, about 30 years ago, Ballesteros was contracted to play Slazenger clubs in Europe for an endorsement fee estimated at around £2.5m over three years. At the same time, he was also contracted to play Mizuno in the Far East as well as having a particular liking for Sounder clubs, manufactured by a small American firm in which he had a financial interest.

Intrigued by this, I asked a professional during the Irish Open at Royal Dublin if he would look in the Spaniard's Slazenger bag lying by the putting green and identify the clubs he was actually playing. "First of all, I can tell you what they're not," he said. "They're not Slazenger." Then on closer inspection, the professional established that Ballesteros was, in fact, using unmarked Sounder irons which had the letters S-L-A-Z-E-N-G-E-R hammered somewhat crudely into the back of the blade.

Apparently it was an open secret in the golf industry and nobody batted an eyelid.

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