Sunday 26 February 2017

Rory to reap the wind

Karl MacGinty

PASSION, fire and hunger still smoulder within his diminutive frame. Paul McGinley has watched from the wings while the boyhood dreams of friends, fellow Irishmen and even a former room-mate have come true at the Major championships as he grappled with chronic knee problems.

His long, frustrating battle with injury might have broken the spirit of lesser men, but not this feisty 44-year-old Dubliner.

McGinley looks forward to his 21st Irish Open this week in Killarney with as much enthusiasm as he did for his first at Portmarnock in 1989 ... and probably more determination.

Recognised throughout European golf as a Ryder Cup captain-in-waiting, McGinley exudes positive energy, which at present is focused entirely on his efforts to claw his way back from world No 526 into the upper echelons of the global game.

Recently, there have been promising green shoots. At the weather-hit, 54-hole Barclays Scottish Open a fortnight back, McGinley marked his 500th appearance on Tour by posting three successive rounds in the 60s for the first time since October 2009.

Still, he must tread carefully with an ailing left knee, which requires further surgery -- McGinley hopes an eighth knee operation can be staved off until season's end.

Yet, refreshingly, he certainly doesn't tiptoe around any issues in golf.

For example, McGinley expertly explains the perplexing question of why Rory McIlroy, one of the greatest talents in world golf, would be blown so far off course by the wind in the British Open at Royal St George's.

McIlroy's statement on Sunday at Sandwich that he's "not a fan of golf tournaments where the outcome is predicted so much by the weather" and his blunt assertion that it's not worth changing his swing for just one tournament each summer, albeit the British Open, was hotly controversial.

Yet McGinley takes a markedly different view to those who dismissed the 22-year-old as 'a fair-weather player' after his relatively disappointing performance over the storm-tossed final 36 holes at the British Open. "In five years' time, people will have completely the opposite view of Rory," McGinley insists.

"I believe playing in the wind will become his forte, not his nemesis. He'll develop into a great wind player, like Tom Watson.

"I believe this because of the way he works the ball, which is incredible for a modern player," he adds. "Most young kids today are one-dimensional, they work the ball just one way, but Rory's different.

"He draws it, he cuts it, he knocks it down. He has all the shots, but what he hasn't learned is how to match that ability to differing wind conditions; how to see the shots he needs to play in the wind.

"I'd love to see him play with Christy O'Connor during the winter, or Christy Jnr, or Des Smyth -- old-fashioned players who are expert at reading the wind. Rory has the ability to play the shots. For him, it's simply a matter of learning how to choose the right ones and that will come in time."

Admitting he "cringes" every time he hears pundits and players place McIlroy on a par with Tiger Woods as golf's next great superstar, McGinley goes on: "Rory's only a kid and should not be weighed down so heavily with expectation.

"I think much of the hype heaped on Rory after his win at Congressional has been irresponsible. It's important that he's given room to grow and develop his talent without all this pressure.

"I'd be very reluctant to compare him to Tiger at the moment. Rory has won three tournaments and they were all fantastic, Rolls Royce performances.

"However, his career, ultimately, is going to be defined by his ability to win when he's not playing at his best. That was something Tiger did -- he's won tournaments even when playing poorly by his own standards. Rory's going to have to learn how to compete when he's not quite on his game.

"It's something he'll pick up over the next few years," McGinley adds. "Inevitably, he's going to make mistakes and screw up tournaments like everybody else; look at how many times Jack Nicklaus finished second at the Majors."

McIlroy's ability to bounce back from April's implosion at the Masters and win the US Open suggests to McGinley that he has the resilience to learn and bounce back fast from any setbacks in his career.

Ryder Cup veteran McGinley, who famously clinched victory for Europe at the Belfry in 2002 and then shared in subsequent record-breaking victories over the US at Oakland Hills and the K Club, captained the GB&I team, including McIlroy, to victory over Continental Europe at the 2009 Seve Trophy.

Yet he'd pay to watch McIlroy play. "I look at him and I think of that lottery advert where a big finger comes down from heaven and points out somebody," he explains. "That's what I think God has done with Rory. He's just given him all this talent to play the game.

"I'm a huge fan and not just because he's a likeable lad and good to be around. I also think he's riveting to watch."

As McIlroy is joined on the fairways in Killarney this week by British Open hero Darren Clarke and fellow Major winners Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington, McGinley expects massive crowds to make this week's Irish Open special.

After the loss of sponsors '3', this year's prize money has been halved to €1.5m, but McGinley insists: "For me, the success of an event has nothing to do with the size of the purse or even the venue. It's the atmosphere which makes or breaks a tournament.

"It's a matter of getting support from the Irish public. With two current Major champions in the field and both of them Irish, there's no reason why we won't have massive crowds this year.

"We're very good at supporting our own on this island," he adds. "I think the Irish Open is returning to its glory days, to be honest."

With six Major championships won in four years by Harrington, McDowell, McIlroy and, most recently, by Clarke, his room-mate during their first years on Tour, McGinley remarks: "It's incredible the number of Majors we've had for such a small island."

He insists the "hammerings" given to the US at recent Ryder Cups "boosted confidence in Europe and dented that of the Americans", eliminating any sense of "inferiority" on this side of the Atlantic and leading directly to the current domination of European Tour golfers.

Propelled into the world's top 20 when he won the biggest of his four European titles, the 2005 Volvo Masters, McGinley's own chance to capitalise on that confidence was stymied by the knee injury originally sustained playing Gaelic football as a teenager.

working

Yet there's no hint of self-pity, as McGinley says: "It's been a cross to bear but I've still had a very good career. I still feel I can play to a much better level than I have recently and I'm working hard to achieve that.

"I don't want to use the knee as an excuse. It gives me problems and will do so until the day I die, but it's one of those things. I'd still never give back my days as a GAA player because they're the foundation upon which I built a successful golf career. I'd not have been anywhere near as successful as a golfer had I not played football."

McGinley has several rapidly developing international business interests, from course design to clubstohire.com. Yet this famously dogged Irishman's heart is still firmly set on his quest for fulfilment as a golfer.

Irish Independent

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