Monday 23 October 2017

Reborn Dustin Johnson is the man to challenge Rory McIlroy and drive him to history

Reborn Johnson looks the man to challenge McIlroy and spark a rivalry to set game alight

Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson

Karl MacGinty

AMERICA is desperately seeking a star-spangled rival for Rory McIlroy following Tiger's shockingly fast fall from power and grace.

The search so far has focused on the sublimely gifted Jordan Spieth, precocious fellow-Texan Patrick Reed, who told Europe's massed galleries at Gleneagles to shush, and Rickie Fowler, a decent, good-looking sort who has yet to make the sport swoon with his golf.

There is one US player, however, who has the raw power, the all-round game and, at last it seems, the commitment to engage McIlroy in a straight-up, eyeball-to-eyeball battle for supremacy for the rest of this decade - Dustin Johnson.

Golf has thrived on rivalries like 'Jack and Arnie' or 'Tiger and Phil'. Well, next up are Dustin and Rory, two monster-long, deeply talented players who epitomise the modern power-game.

What a coup it would be if Johnson accepts McIlroy's invitation to May's Irish Open at Royal Co Down.

Johnson (30, below) has long been viewed as an exceptional physical specimen. Yet if this gifted athlete's flesh was willing, his spirit appeared weak, evidenced as much by the recent six-month sabbatical he needed to take from the sport as a disquieting series of Sunday afternoon setbacks at the Majors.

He's returned from his 'self-imposed' exile leaner and, judging by his demeanour, more focused than ever before - an inevitable consequence of the recent birth of his son. With Paulina Gretzky on his arm and her famous father, ice-hockey legend Wayne, at his elbow, Johnson looks serious about fulfilling his enormous potential.

Though beaten by a magnificent birdie from James Hahn on the third play-off hole at the Northern Trust Open, Johnson was the player who emerged from Riviera Country Club with the best Masters-winning credentials.

First-time PGA Tour winner Hahn (34) - previously best known for dancing 'Gangnam Style' after sinking a birdie putt in Phoenix in 2013 - he makes his bow at Augusta next month and history weighs heavily against rookies at the Masters.

Not that Johnson's Masters record is much to write home about. He missed the cut last year, still awaits his first top-10 and, like McIlroy, has fared less well on Augusta's par-fives than one would think.

It has been said that for all of Johnson's power, which sent him to the top of the US charts with an average 315 yards off the tee last week, his short game left much to be desired.

For sure, he failed to save par from a greenside bunker at 17 on Sunday and missed from inside 10 feet on the final green for birdie and outright victory, but a stroke of absolute genius on the second play-off hole came right out of the Green Jacket owner's manual.

Hitting in first, Paul Casey failed to make the most of the best lie and left his ball 12 feet short of the hole.

Hahn hit several feet inside him. Then Johnson, playing out of thick spinach, hit a heavenly lob shot that landed gently and rolled out to four feet. He and Hahn made their birdie putts after Casey missed.

Getting such spin and control out of that lie demanded a majestic mix of raw muscle and exquisite timing. This miracle shot overshadowed even the 20-foot putt Hahn holed for victory at 14.

Sergio Garcia blew the lead and a place in the play-off with slipshod bogeys at 17 and 18. Faced on Sunday by a challenge of Major proportions, the chip in Sergio's psyche overloads.

After his final-round setbacks at the 2010 US Open and PGA and surrender to Darren Clarke on Sunday at the 2011 Open, one wondered if Johnson belonged in the same bracket.

Yet in the three events played since his return, Johnson already seems different.

It will be fascinating to see him square up to McIlroy at this week's Honda Classic.

Offaly is 'Lowry Country' once again as Masters looms

SHANE LOWRY plays alone but his adventures on the world's fairways are shared, indeed lived, by the entire community in his native Clara and County Offaly.

So once again, Offaly is being dubbed 'Lowry Country'.

Lowry's epic journey from Esker Hills to Augusta National illustrates perfectly how the efforts of one sportsman can fire the imagination of thousands.

The trophies are on the golfer's sideboard but the multitudes who sang in the rain at Baltray as Lowry won the 1999 Irish Open as an amateur or roared out 'The Offaly Rover' on Friday at the 2010 British Open in St Andrews were rewarded with golden memories.

Those who need reminding of the magic sport can bring need only listen to Ray Molloy.

"We're a small little club at Esker Hills with about 200 members and to think we can turn on the TV, like we did last week, and there's Shane playing with the world's best over in Pebble Beach, or at Torrey Pines the week before. . ." he says.

Or next week when their own World No 46 tees it up at the $9m Cadillac World Golf Championship.

Molloy fondly recalls that Day at St Andrews when Offaly hearts nearly burst with pride as 'young Shane' chipped and putted for birdie to make the cut in his first Major. Molloy distinctly remembers bemused locals asking what sparked such reverie.

Though insisting "I'm not a gambler," he couldn't resist odds of 66/1 against Lowry winning this year's Open at St Andrews.

Right now, Lowry's debut at April's Masters fill the horizon and road signs have been erected around Tullamore and Clara leaving no doubt where local loyalties lie.

It harks back to 1982 when this corner of Offaly was proclaimed 'Lowry Country' in homage to a distinguished Gaelic football dynasty, including Shane's dad Brendan, and the part they played in beating Kerry in the All-Ireland.

Molloy is from Esker Hills, where Lowry, the golfer, was honed. His 'natural' short game is the talk of golf, but those who saw their neighbour work endlessly, often in solitude, during his teens know the real source of this 'gift'.

The atmosphere at Esker Hills will be so good during Masters week, it could be just around Amen Corner from Augusta National.

Owned, Ray explains, by a consortium of "three Molloys (himself, Joseph and Donal) and one O'Brien (Donal), the club has received a stunning response to their own 'Esker Hills to Augusta Masters' tournament, which will run as a singles competition concurrently, Thursday to Sunday, with golf's most exciting event.

"We only launched it on Wednesday night and within 48 hours, Thursday (April 9) was sold out, full house, all 34 (four-man) teams," he explains.

"We have filled all but seven of the teams for Saturday, while Friday and Sunday already are about half full.

"They're coming from all around Ireland. The amount of goodwill to Shane is unbelievable. We're so proud of him and his family."

McGinley's brother hits three aces in a week

OH brother!

Michael McGinley has set a record which even his famous sibling Paul, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, won't beat. McGinley (40), off plus-one, hit three holes-in-one in six days in Dubai, where he lives. His first ace since age 15 was on February 12 at the Earth Course with a four-iron into four. The next day he holed a nine-iron at the fifth at Dubai Creek, his home track, where the hat-trick came up on eight last Tuesday.

Irish Independent

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