Wednesday 18 October 2017

Dustin Johnson resorts to sneaky tactics in clash with Rory McIlroy as Ryder Cup mind games ramp up

Temperature rising despite Hazeltine’s celebrity sideshows

Rory McIlroy was on the putting green when Dustin Johnson interrupted his practice session
Rory McIlroy was on the putting green when Dustin Johnson interrupted his practice session
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

No effort has been spared, and no detail overlooked in Europe's Ryder Cup planning bar one - they forgot to pack a 'no trespassers allowed' sign.

If they had, they might have stuck it beside the putting green at Hazeltine National. But then, Dustin Johnson probably would have ignored it anyway. Yes, the bould DJ gatecrashed the Europeans' early-morning putting practice.

According to the schedule, he should have been out on the course with his fellow Americans.

There they were, the majority of Darren Clarke's team on the green sward, putting away, some using various alignment and stroke aids.

Clad in grey, their uniforms matched the colour of the sky above on another cold, breezy start to the day.

Rory McIlroy was busy working with putting coach Phil Kenyon. He was stroking some long putts to a hole close to the edge of the green.

Rory McIlroy with Europe vice-captain Sam Torrance during a practice round at Hazeltine yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Rory McIlroy with Europe vice-captain Sam Torrance during a practice round at Hazeltine yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

I looked at them, and then glanced to my left. Could it be? Surely it's not - but it was.

The gunfighter walk, the slight roll of the shoulders, yes, it's Dustin Johnson. What's he doing here?

Putter in hand, without a word, DJ strolled onto the green, dropped a couple of balls, and proceeded to putt to the same hole as McIlroy.

Don't know about you, but if someone did that to me on the practice green, I'd get the old snarky feeling in the gut, knowing we now had a little silent mental territorial tussle going on.

Rory's ball trundled down to the hole. DJ rolled his golf balls at the same hole from one side.

Then, as Rory went back to hit some more long ones at the same target, DJ moved directly into McIlroy's line, so they were both putting from opposite sides of the hole.

Johnson's caddie did a bit of ice-breaking, joking with Rory, but there was a tinge of frost in the air, and it wasn't just from the chilly temperatures. A few more putts, and DJ loped away.

Rory and the Europeans completed their putting, and moved to the practice ground to hit shots ahead of their nine holes on the course.

The Johnson incursion: Something? Or nothing? Relevant or not?

To the neutral onlooker, it smacked of a challenge to the alpha male on the opposition side, but perhaps not. It could be a case of DJ going: 'Want to putt, will putt' and thinking nothing more about it, as these guys share putting greens all the time on Tour.

Given that this is Ryder Cup week, he might have been a tad more sensitive to demarcation lines. Still, it highlighted the gradually rising tension as we wait for the real action to begin tomorrow.

The talking points, the sideshow events such as Tuesday's Celebrity Match, help to fill in the time for the fans, the majority of whom on the first few days are obviously American.

They got great value from actor Bill Murray who played with Huey Lewis against Niall Horan of One Direction and former Irish rugby star Paul O'Connell.

Murray hammed it all up beautifully, not least when he chipped the ball close on the 18th, leaving Lewis a three-footer to clinch the match. As Lewis crouched over the putt, Murray stood almost on top of him and dropped his club.

Then he dropped a golf ball, then tees. The bustle was on, big-time, and Lewis duly missed the putt so it finished an honourable half to loud applause and raucous cheers from the crowd.

Afterwards O'Connell and Dynamo the Magician joined the Europeans in their team room at the Sheraton Bloomington hotel. The USA team is also based in that hotel but in a different wing. O'Connell's talk of his experiences in the team environment went down a treat with the golfers.

"The caddies, the players, everybody in that room; you could have heard a pin drop whenever Paul was addressing them," said captain Darren Clarke.

O'Connell, typically humble, downplayed his contribution.

"It was good, very short and sweet. For me, pressure is having to rely on yourself; for them, the pressure is probably being involved in a team, so it is very different that way.

"I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with them afterwards, had a bit of grub with them, got to see Dynamo the magician's stuff.

"They have a team room very similar to what we would have with the Irish rugby team.

"The fun and banter they were having is something I take for being part and parcel of my job, whereas for them it is part of the Ryder Cup and only the Ryder Cup. It was a fantastic experience," he said.

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