Rory McIlroy: Learning how to acclimatise
Coping with the vagaries of links will be McIlroy's sternest challenge, writes John O'Brien
Shortly after 11.30 at Royal St George's yesterday, Rory McIlroy stood on the driving range and cut a happy, unruffled figure. A harsh wind was feeding in over Sandwich Bay, suggesting a rough afternoon ahead, but there was a democracy about it he could appreciate. The first two days had condemned him to the worst of the conditions and there was nothing to do but grind it out and keep the leaders in sight.
So much for the so-called 'Tiger draw' then. The chatter had been of the conferral of privilege by the Royal & Ancient, as if McIlroy had been officially anointed before his time. The privilege had come with sharp claws, however, and as the wind whipped up and rain drove relentlessly into their faces, the smile on McIlroy's face suggested that, as bad as things were, at least nobody was receiving favours now.
He moved serenely through his pre-game routine. He shot the breeze with his caddy, JP Fitzgerald, and worked his way through his bag: sand wedge, gap wedge, irons, all the way down to driver. Before rounds McIlroy will hit close to 100 balls, each one generally following the same pleasing arc: straight and high, as if he is trying to clear an imaginary Empire State. It is how he likes to play the game.
In this, there are those who would detect a flaw in his make-up. On calm days the world knows what McIlroy can do to even the most formidable of golf courses. At Royal St George's this week, hardened golf watchers talked hopefully of a harsh, wintry squall drawing in, if only to see how his game and temperament might hold up, how he would cope when the weather gods became his toughest foe. Yesterday their wish was granted.
McIlroy simply smiled and said all the right things. He wasn't going out in search of perfection. That was a sure way to disaster, he felt. He knew it was all about containment. Standing still day at Royal St George's. "Keep it even par these next couple of days," he said hopefully. "That could be pretty good." Given the dreadful conditions, though, it also sounded a tad ambitious.
Although he hasn't played enough Opens to make definitive judgments, the suspicion is that McIlroy is a formidable opponent lining up in any tournament, but merely a highly accomplished one when it comes to this one. When his manager, Chubby Water, poured cold water on his Open prospects last week, suggesting that next month's PGA Championship in Atlanta as a more realistic target, it sounded like a ploy to dampen expectations after Congressional.
Yet Chandler's verdict was shown to be spot on. The high winds and hard greens blunted his edge in raw ability. For two days he coped well enough. He fought hard to restrain his aggressive instincts and, after a shaky start, recovered to fight his way back to level, quits with a tough golf course, at peace with himself. He had grinded his way through, hole by hole. Gritted his teeth and took the worst Royal St George's threw his way. The illusion that he could sustain a challenge survived until the 14th yesterday. He dropped shots on the first and third, just as he had done on Thursday, but reclaimed one of them at the seventh and was beginning to find his rhythm again. Then came the tough par five: a hooked drive out of bounds and a double-bogey seven that effectively ended his hopes of lifting the Claret Jug.
Instead it would be left to Darren Clarke to fly the flag for Northern Ireland. McIlroy wasn't surprised by the sublime play of a golfer who was once a mentor. McIlroy had drawn inspiration from Graeme McDowell's US Open victory at Pebble Beach last year, so why wouldn't Clarke be similarly inspired by McIlroy's success at Congressional? Because he suffered tragedy in his personal life and underwent a period of upheaval, it was easy forget that the 42-year-old remained a prodigiously talented golfer.
And even if Clarke's Open record left something to be desired, this was still his kind of terrain. "This sort of golf really suits his game," McIlroy said. "He's grown up on links and he likes to play different shots. It's the sort of week where you've got to just manage your game very well. And he's good at doing that, hitting different shots and changing the trajectory. It's good to see him up there."
The interesting thing about this observation was the hidden subtext it contained. He admired these things in Clarke, McIlroy seemed to be saying, because they were absent from his own game. Even though he himself had grown up in Co Down, a short hop from the beach, and set the course record of 61 at Royal County Down when he was 16, the Open presents an environment in which McIlroy doesn't feel entirely comfortable.
It is partly what made him such compelling viewing this week. He was here fighting against the hype and expectation that had rocketed since Congressional. Fighting history too -- no golfer upon winning his first Major has ever followed it immediately with his second. More than that, though, there was the sense that the Open is the one his supporters, as well as McIlroy himself, would most desperately like to win but for which his game, for all its dazzling brilliance, is least designed to cope.
When he looks back over the week he will realise that, despite driving one out of bounds yesterday, it wasn't errant tee-shots or loose approaches that proved his undoing, but poor decision making for several shots. A tough chip at the 13th on Thursday when putter was the sensible option. An aggressive wedge over the 10th flag on Friday when a more subtle approach was needed. He squandered shots needlessly at times when he was striking the ball imperiously.
This week he played two rounds in the company of Ernie Els and three with the hugely exciting Californian, Rickie Fowler. You could sense his ease playing alongside Fowler. They met first during the Walker Cup in 2007 when it was played at Royal County Down and, even then, it was apparent how comfortable Fowler felt playing links golf. That empathy can carry a man playing well a long way in the Open Championship.
"Yeah I love links golf," Fowler beamed after he had upstaged McIlroy with a mesmerising 68 in some of the worst of the day's conditions. "I love the variety and the options you get on the course. There's so many ways you can play one shot, and I feel like I can hit different shots and I like to hit different shots. It's just the way I grew up learning how to play the game."
McIlroy could have learned something from Els too. That might sound odd given that two substandard rounds of 72 and 76 meant Els departed at the half-way point. Yet the sheer range of shots he employed -- low cutters from long-range, bump and runs from 60 yards and so on -- provided a glimpse of the kind of game, what is sometimes called "imagination", required for links golf. For all his talent, McIlroy simply hasn't developed enough game to cope.
It is arguably what makes the Open superior to any other Major. More than any of the other three, it is the one where talent alone and brilliant shot-making is least likely, on its own, to get the job done. Where experience and dead-eyed maturity come most into play. As Tom Watson reminded us this week, it had taken him four years not just to become an Open contender, but to feel comfortable on a links course in the first place. McIlroy shows signs of a golfer who has still to undergo that process.
And maybe it involves more than golf itself. Is it mere co-incidence that last night's leaderboard was flush with seasoned veterans whose careers have followed an up and down trajectory? And why is it that Watson can still look out his window first thing in the morning and "internally smile a little bit", as the American Bo Van Pelt put it, when he saw the dark clouds beginning to circle?
Sometimes you can get a little deep about this stuff, but there is something about Watson and the life he has lived that makes him, at 61, still a competitor at this event and that softens the terror of even the fiercest days. "All golf is just a series of victories and defeats," he said on Friday. "That's all it is. There's many victories, there's many defeats. There's major victories and major defeats each time you play a round of golf. It's all about that."
Before he travelled to Sandwich, Watson spoke of visiting Normandy and spending time on the D-Day landing beaches and in the cemetery at Ranville. That was his preparation for the Open, he said. Remember too that McIlroy spent two days in Haiti before he travelled to Congressional to win the US Open. He understands a little of the perspective the man who won five Opens brings. An Open victory will surely come but he is not ready yet to meet its demands.
Afterwards, with his impeccable sense of golfing history, he reminded himself that Paul Lawrie had come from 10 shots behind on the last day to win at Carnoustie in 1999, but that was wishful thinking. "If the conditions are decent I could see myself shooting maybe four or five under and getting in the hunt," he explained. "Well, if they were like this it would be okay, but if the conditions are similar to what they were this morning, then it's going to be very tough to make ground up on the leaders."
He had this wrong surely. The best golfers when faced with a big gap will usually hope for the most violent tempest the gods could muster and believe, because they have no other choice, that they could still post a score as the leaders begin to crumble. Did McIlroy truly believe it, though? Does he truly believe he can be a contender on the biggest stage of all? That was the question of the week.
Sunday Indo Sport