Tuesday 6 December 2016

Staring down his demons with an eye of the Tiger

Published 19/06/2011 | 05:00

At the US Open on Thursday Rory McIlroy played close to the limit of his marvellous talent, completely at one with himself and his game.

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He was cocooned in that mysterious state of being they call 'the zone'. He was serene and untroubled, playing shot after shot as if on automatic pilot, free of self-consciousness or fear.

It is a fragile, elusive state, easily broken and hard to reach in the first place. But on Friday he picked up where he'd left off, as if he'd woken from his night's sleep still in the same trance. After 26 holes he was seven shots clear of the field at Congressional Country Club. Veterans of the game were looking not at the scoreboard but the record books.

"This is quite extraordinary golf," said Colin Montgomerie on Sky Sports. This was a golf course that was designed to intimidate the array of world-class golfers who had assembled there. And it was succeeding, except with the one player who was floating above it all. McIlroy was dominating it to such an extent that comparisons with Tiger Woods at his zenith were being invoked. "It's almost eerie," said commentator Robert Lee on Sky. "It appears he's the only player in the entire field who can attack this golf course."

Incredibly, he had yet to drop a shot. But the longer his immaculate play continued, the more we were inclined to hold our breath: it felt like McIlroy was walking a high wire, advancing across thin air towards perfection. It wasn't about the score anymore; it was about how long he could defy reality. One slip would break the spell. One banal lapse in concentration would bring him back down to earth.

At the 9th on Friday he found a bunker but recovered smoothly. At the 10th there was panic on his face as his ball threatened to drop short and land in water; he just about made the green but then made good his par. At the 11th his second shot landed in a greenside bunker and the commentators were seeing signs of frailty. "Maybe all of a sudden," said one, "he's got that far in front it's very difficult not to become a bit defensive." Maybe he had stretched the elastic to breaking point here? But he nailed a mid-range putt to save par and continue without a blemish on his card.

It had been a mild tremor and it didn't last. He clenched his fist when the putt sank and the moment seemed to restore his equilibrium.

The next six holes were a sublime procession. Shot after shot, the ball sailed through the blue and landed on whatever patch of green he'd chosen. Physically he was a picture of symmetry, beautifully balanced through every swing of the club, said the pundits. "It (McIlroy's swing) is the freest action in world golf I do believe," said Lee.

With mind and body in just about perfect harmony, this was a player in untouchable form. After 20 years of commentating, said Ewen Murray, "I'm not sure, even with Woods at his very best, that I've seen better ball-striking than we're seeing from this man. Another stunning iron shot."

The comparisons with Woods were proof that while evolution happens at a glacial pace generally, in sport it is a speeded-up process. Tiger Woods's achievements were so far ahead of their time it was assumed he would be out on his own for a long generation at least. Now here was a kid from the next wave closing the gap -- not in achievement, obviously, but in terms of raw talent.

Birdies at the 14th and 16th took McIlroy to 12 under, nine shots clear of the field. At the 17th he had a 15-foot putt for birdie. When he drained it the venerable American golf guru Butch Harmon, on commentary with Sky, just burst out laughing. "That's awesome! You're walking on water right now Buddy." No one in US Open history had reached 13-under-par before.

But after his second shot at the 18th, McIlroy was no longer walking on water -- instead his ball was in the water. His drive had caught the trees; his recovery shot ended up in the drink. The spell was broken. He'd fallen off the high wire. It was a shame to see it end. And just when he'd almost made it across.

Inevitably, despite the pristine brilliance of his work, there was a shadow hanging over it all. No

one watching could shake off the thoughts of Augusta National. Ten weeks ago he had his first major title, the US Masters, within his grasp on the Sunday morning. The rest was trauma. He suffered a very public and very painful collapse beneath the pressure.

But afterwards he faced the music. He carried on, he didn't go into hiding. He left immediately for Malaysia to fulfil another tournament commitment. And he answered questions, the same questions, a thousand times over. He has turned 22 since Augusta. The consensus is that he handled the fallout with exceptional dignity and maturity.

But nobody could have expected to see him leading the field in another major so soon. The scars couldn't possibly heal so quickly. And, notwithstanding his phenomenal form this week, there's no guarantee that they have. Today he is back in the crucible. If Augusta didn't kill him, one can only hope it made him stronger.

thecouch@independent.ie

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