Friday 22 September 2017

Natural order of greatness will stand to Rory

Rory McIlroy is too talented a player not to bounce back, says Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy plays a tee-shot shot during day three of the Australian Open at Royal Sydney Golf Club
Rory McIlroy plays a tee-shot shot during day three of the Australian Open at Royal Sydney Golf Club

Dermot Gilleece

Sporting greatness, it could be said, is an ability to create an aura of invincibility which has the effect of forcing rivals into unintended concessions. It's a status the All Blacks enjoy in world rugby. And it offers the certainty that Rory McIlroy will return to the top of tournament golf.

When the subject was raised with Michael Jordan about a young friend who was dominating golf, the former basketball star said: "What Tiger's got is confidence which borders on being cocky. Intimidation can be so successful, and Tiger has it."

Ireland experienced that feeling last Sunday, when neutrals would have seen a certain inevitability about the outcome. Indeed some might have viewed New Zealand's last-gasp triumph as being entirely appropriate in the natural order of things. Why, for instance, should the notion of crushed dreams be allowed diminish the quality of a stunning comeback?

Which reminded me of the great golf writer, Pat Ward-Thomas, and his reaction to the 1978 Open Championship victory by Jack Nicklaus, who came from a stroke down on New Zealand's Simon Owen with three holes to play to win by two at St Andrews. Ward-Thomas went so far as to describe the Bear's victory as "essential", before going on to call it "the most fitting accolade to a prestigious talent and to one whose example in all the ways of golf has been a great benefit to the game."

Owen, who was 27 at the time, joined a long list of rivals to wilt in Nicklaus's shadow. Indeed when the great days were behind him, the Bear claimed that the only occasion in Major championship golf when he played to the very best of his ability and it wasn't good enough, was the 1977 Open at Turnberry, where he lost the so-called 'Duel in the Sun' to Tom Watson.

There was a time, before his altercation with a fire hydrant, when Woods was comparably dominant in head-to-head battles. Like when he hobbled to a remarkable US Open victory over Rocco Mediate in 2008. The one which really stands out for me, however, was the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, where the little-known American, Bob May, seemed set to become an unlikely champion when carding an outward 31 en route to a final round of 66. I remember a Scottish colleague, Alan Fraser of the Daily Mail, later observing that it reminded him of James Bond strapped to a table with a fearsome laser "heading unerringly towards his private parts".

"You always knew," said Fraser, "that he would escape, but you didn't know precisely how and when."

And, of course, Woods duly escaped, courtesy of a miraculous seven-foot birdie putt on the 72nd, which got him into a play-off. Later, he confessed that the only situation he imagined which might intimidate him would be "maybe stepping into the ring with [Mike] Tyson".

The mark of greatness is an ability to strike a blow at a critical moment in a sporting contest which not only gives you the chance of victory, but seriously unnerves your closest rival. For Pádraig Harrington, this came most memorably on the 71st hole of the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, which he faced on level terms with playing partner Sergio Garcia. Sensibly, the monster par three was reduced from 238 yards to 216, with the pin located back, right.

Seizing the moment, Harrington hit a glorious five-iron to 10 feet, only for Garcia to respond with an even better one to within four feet of the target. While thinking of the old matchplay adage that the first in wins the hole, the Dubliner struck the perfect putt to find the bottom of the cup.

Now, needing to sink his four-footer or be a stroke behind going up the last, Garcia pulled it ruinously onto the left lip. And instantly, you sensed how much that effort had been influenced by the man standing close by.

"It's been a long year," McIlroy said with feeling in Sydney, where he trailed Adam Scott by four strokes in the Australian Open going into this morning's final. And given everything that's been going on in his young life, why should he be any different from the number of players who have captured one and even two Major championships and then slipped quietly into obscurity? It's the manner of those victories in the 2011 US Open and 2012 PGA Championship, which sets him apart.

Rounds of 65, 66, 68 and 69 saw him run away with the blue riband of American golf at Congressional, where he finished no fewer than eight strokes clear of Jason Day, Australia's World Cup hero at Royal Melbourne last Sunday. Then, last year at Kiawah Island, his 66 for another eight-stroke triumph, was the best closing round I had the pleasure of witnessing in a Major championship.

With those sort of credentials, you don't disappear from view, except for reasons unrelated to transient form. As a two-time former US Open champion, Andy North understands such matters and has no doubt about a McIlroy resurgence in the not-too-distant future.

"It's not as if Rory's 30 years old and lost his game," said the ESPN analyst. "He's only 24, for God's sake. Sure, he's struggled with his swing a bit, which knocks your confidence. And every player who's ever played this game has gone through stretches where they didn't play well – maybe for three months, six months or possibly a year.

"By comparison with most tour players, Rory's actually had an OK year. But because of what he was doing 12 months ago, really dominating the sport and becoming world number one, alarm bells are ringing. Trust me, the great ones generally don't suffer for too long and I consider what's been happening to Rory as no more than a learning process for him.

"I really like him. He's truly one of the great talents of our game, with an unbelievable amount of ability and an amazing future. I love the way he plays and I believe he has what it takes to be fighting to be number one again, before long. All that outside stuff has been pretty darn hard on him, but he's learning how to deal better with it.

"You're in love with a woman and you're trying to be a normal guy while everything you do is being analysed and written about. Somebody writing about how terrible you are for whatever reason, while

you're trying to figure out where things are going and all that sort of stuff. That can't be easy, especially for one so young.

"The wonderful thing about our business is a willingness to help the other guy. You go out and compete as hard as you can, but if somebody needs your help, you'll give it to him. Full marks to Rory for acknowledging that. With everything he had going on, he still took the trouble to stick up for Tiger after those recent potshots [from TV's Brandel Chamblee over rules infringements]."

He concluded: "Rory's recent problems become all the harder when you've had such an easy ride for two or three years. Everything was just beautiful. Then all of a sudden there are issues. I think the way he has been coping is a further sign of his greatness."

An understanding of team greatness was to be found in a TV interview when Richie McCaw was asked after a tense win over England if defeat had crossed his mind. There was a look of bemusement and a pause, before the All Blacks skipper replied: "Nah. You can't start thinking like that."

Which should have prepared us for those climactic moments nearer home, eight days later.

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