Thursday 21 September 2017

McIlroy set to thrive under Stockton's wing

Having officially overtaken Tiger Woods in the world rankings, Rory McIlroy will be hoping to repeat his dramatic win at Quail Hollow this weekend.
Having officially overtaken Tiger Woods in the world rankings, Rory McIlroy will be hoping to repeat his dramatic win at Quail Hollow this weekend.

Karl McGinty

Take a four-stroke lead into Sunday at the US Masters and there are only two possible outcomes ... the Green Jacket or sackcloth and ashes. Unless your name is Rory McIlroy!

The most remarkable feature of McIlroy's final-day collapse at Augusta National is the way he has simply taken it in his stride.

McIlroy celebrates his 22nd birthday tomorrow at Quail Hollow, where he this week steps back into the PGA Tour spotlight as defending champion at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a pressure situation for any player.

But McIlroy has proved in the three weeks since Augusta that he's not 'any player'.

From the moment he walked off the green after that calamitous final-round 80, he has astonished people with his acceptance -- whether it was the global audience who marvelled at the dignity of his post-round TV interview, or his best pals, who were almost taken aback by McIlroy's ability to rationalise the day's events that night at the house they shared in Augusta.

Padraig Harrington admitted after Carnoustie 2007 that had he lost the Claret Jug with that double-bogey six on 18, he'd probably have spent the next six months talking to the world through his letter box.

At the very least, McIlroy's mates must have prepared themselves for an evening walking on eggshells that Sunday in Augusta, until the man himself launched into a cool, considered analysis of the afternoon's events.

"Yeah, he was fine," one of those housemates, Harry Diamond, recently revealed. "He sat down (that night) and looked at where he went wrong.

"We thought he'd wait a few days but, right away, he was straight into it. He knows he's got plenty of chances at the Majors -- he's even got another three this year."

Of course, McIlroy got straight back into European Tour action after Augusta, flying straight to Kuala Lumpur for the Maybank Malaysian Open, in which he defied jet lag and exhaustion by pressing for victory right up to the final hole on Sunday.

The following week, after the media whirlwind stirred by his US Masters collapse had blown itself out, McIlroy sat down with Chubby Chandler, founder and head of his management company ISM, for a quiet chat.

The words 'post-mortem' might usually be applied to such a meeting, but nobody died at Augusta and certainly not McIlroy's dreams of Major championship glory.

Instead, McIlroy's performance at Augusta National was calmly dissected and it was agreed that the positives, particularly the qualities the Holywood youngster showed in leading the field for 63 holes, by far outweighed the negatives.

He had looked so incredibly comfortable from tee to green over the first three days in golf's most challenging arena, McIlroy might even have challenged Tiger's 1999 scoring record at the US Masters had he tucked away the many birdie and eagle chances he created on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Augusta.

This highlighted the only chink in his armour. Indeed, if his failure to win the US Masters served one useful purpose, it was to leave absolutely no room for further denial of his difficulty in holing relatively short putts, especially under pressure.

So a significant course of action was taken. Contact has been made with Dave Stockton, the former US Ryder Cup captain and two-times US PGA champion, whose reputation as one of professional golf's foremost putting gurus has flourished on foot of glowing tributes from two of his star pupils, Phil Mickelson and Annika Sorenstam.

During his recent Champions Tour appearance at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah, Stockton revealed that he'd been asked to give lessons to McIlroy and Suzann Pettersen.

That McIlroy might go and consult with Stockton (pictured below) was initially suggested by RTE's golf correspondent Greg Allen in a well-considered blog posted on the national station's website eight days after the Masters.

In it, Allen made the astute observation that Stockton's 'old-school' and 'intuitive' approach would better suit a player as naturally gifted as McIlroy than the scientific alternative offered by Dr Paul Hurrion.

McIlroy has worked with Dr Hurrion, a renowned sports biomechanist who counts many other top-class professionals among his clientele, including Padraig Harrington.

While Harrington is the ultimate technophile and has long been dedicated to the appliance of science in golf, McIlroy is very much a 'feel' player. Indeed, the youngster once confessed he found it difficult applying himself each and every day to the practice drills suggested by the good doctor.

While there's been no obvious or consistent flaw in McIlroy's putting stroke in recent times, Allen's observation that it "appeared to be a bit mechanical and lacking in touch" at Augusta cannot be disputed.

Interestingly, McIlroy has had few problems putting from longer range. The key is to build his confidence in his ability to hole short, pressure putts and Stockton could be just the man to provide him with a routine more in keeping with his natural instincts.

If, as one suspects, new world No 6 McIlroy finds comfort under Stockton's wing, it could, even in the short term, unlock the door to Major titles.

In the meantime, McIlroy's general ball-striking was so good at Augusta and again in Malaysia, he should make a stirring defence of the title he won in such spectacular fashion at Quail Hollow last May and put a little more 'air' between himself and the injury-listed world No 7 Tiger Woods this weekend.

That final-round 62 he posted on a golf course of true Major championship potential is one of the best rounds played on the world's top tours so far this century.

It provides a certain feel-good factor in Charlotte this week which will help McIlroy leave that dark day at Augusta even further behind.

Irish Independent

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