Sport Golf

Monday 11 December 2017

3 of a kind

Rory McIlroy makes his way to the fourth tee box with his caddy JP Fitzgerald during yesterday's Pro-Am in Killarney. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Rory McIlroy makes his way to the fourth tee box with his caddy JP Fitzgerald during yesterday's Pro-Am in Killarney. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

Karl MacGinty

ALL week, Rory McIlroy has been turning heads as much in the car park as on the golf course -- boys of all ages (up to 50 and over) have been posing for pictures alongside the sleek, black 198mph Audi R8 V10 he piloted from Co Down to Killarney for the '3' Irish Open.

When it comes to driving, however, nothing can be more exciting for the genuine golf enthusiast than the sight of McIlroy powering the ball at full throttle down a fairway ... or fearlessly ripping iron shots into even the most challenging of pins.

With McIlroy (21), it's not so much 'Vorsprung durch Technik' as 'Lead through Outrageous Talent', which this young man from Holywood is expected to do, not just over the next four days on the rain-softened Killeen Course, but for years to come.

For example, it was fascinating yesterday to hear US Open champion Graeme McDowell express the continuing importance of his gifted young friend, McIlroy, as a motivating factor in his career, even in the wake of the Portrush man's heroics last month at Pebble Beach.

And Shane Lowry (23), who defends the title he won in such sensational fashion at Baltray last summer, is also inspired to work from dawn till dusk like a latter-day Padraig Harrington in an effort to join his former Irish amateur team-mate in the world's top 10.

With McIlroy admitting that McDowell's victory at the US Open helped concentrate his own focus, it's clear that Ireland's leading young players are getting each other revved up like boy racers at the traffic lights.

And, three Majors or not, you can be certain Harrington also relishes the challenge the trio present, not forgetting the resurgent Darren Clarke and the host of other Irish winners on Tour who speckle the timesheet in Killarney.

Rarely has an Irish Open been surrounded by such an high-octane atmosphere and with sparks expected to fly from the time the first tee shot is struck this morning, some pretty explosive action is in the offing. McDowell even suggested yesterday that the Killeen, with lighter-than-usual rough and its undulating greens made uncommonly receptive by rain, might be ripe for the first-ever 59 on the European Tour.

Elated after shooting the first 59 of his life during a fun round with his dad Kenny, his uncle 'Uel' and American friend Kevin Vance on the 6,400-yards Valley Course in his native Portrush last Sunday, and "probably feeling the best I have felt since I picked up the trophy at Pebble five weeks ago", McDowell is certainly in the mood to shoot low this weekend.

Though he needed to be as tough and mean as a street-fighter at Pebble Beach, where he was last man standing on Sunday as golfing megastars Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els were ground down and out of contention, McDowell remains an accomplished birdie chaser.


For example, his 61 on Friday at Baltray is the lowest round score ever posted at the Irish Open, while the 64 and 63 McDowell shot at the weekend on his way to victory in June's Welsh Open at Celtic Manor was almost as spectacular as McIlroy's mind-bending weekend's work at Quail Hollow a few weeks earlier.

At that time, McDowell said he was flattered to have his own efforts compared to those of McIlroy, adding cheerfully that he'd be happy to make his way to the top of the golfing world in "Rory's slipstream".

Now he's a Major champion, one might expect the Ulsterman's perspective to have changed. Yet McDowell insisted yesterday: "I still feel like Rory's playing a level of golf slightly above me. His game is always going to be a level above mine from the point of view of sheer technique and broad natural talent.

"By 'slipstreaming him', I mean feeding off Rory's his youthful enthusiasm and love for the game.

"Definitely, I assume a slightly more mature role, but we're great friends and I expect we'll continue to motivate and feed off each other."

Similarly, during his march to glory at Co Louth last year, Lowry candidly stated "Rory's at an entirely different level to me in golf" ... and, despite making giant strides as a professional on the European Tour in the past 14 months, the Clara star, now ranked 82nd in the world, admits he still has ground to make up on McIlroy.

"Obviously, Rory's still way ahead of where I am," said Lowry. "For a start, he's No 10 in the world. However, if I work hard enough, I can get up there.

"Everyone's different. For example, Rory and Padraig are up there in the world rankings, but Rory is a different player to Padraig. Rory has a lot of natural ability, while Padraig has worked so incredibly hard. I believe if I work as hard as Padraig does, I can eventually get to that level too."

Just how much these guys get fired up by each other's achievements was evident in McIlroy's reaction to Lowry's victory at Baltray, which he described as "one of the most exciting events on the European Tour last year".

McIlroy ran through teeming rain to watch his pal finish off Robert Rock in sudden death. "I ruined a nice cashmere sweater for that occasion," he joked. "Shane definitely is a better player now than at last year's Irish Open," McIlroy went on. "He's gained a lot more experience. He's a more rounded player, more solid and doesn't hit as many loose shots.


"His short game is really good. Shane has always been great with his wedges, while his putting has really improved this year. He's played well in the last few weeks and I wouldn't be surprised if he popped his head up on the leaderboard at some time this year."

Unlikely though it seems, there is precedent for an amateur winning his national open title and going on to retain it the following year ... namely Aaron Baddeley's remarkable back-to-back victories at the Australian Open in 1999 and 2000.

Meanwhile, McIlroy's sharp competitive instincts also showed when someone suggested McDowell might have pinched his bragging rights in Portrush with last Sunday's 59.

"It wasn't in Portrush, it was at the Valley," retorted McIlroy, harking back to the record-shattering 61 he shot on the world-famous Dunluce Links in Portrush at age 16 during qualifying for the North of Ireland Amateur Championship.

Amid all this banter, one needed only a glance at today's timesheet to understand what an outstanding recipe for adventure it represents.

For example, McIlroy goes out this morning in a fascinating threeball with Welsh putting wizard Rhys Davies and Clarke, one of nine 'survivors' (including Paul McGinley and Philip Walton) from 1992, when Nick Faldo swept to his second successive Irish Open victory in Killarney. McDowell tees it up with Harrington and steely Damien McGrane from Kells in a truly combustive threeball this afternoon.

Though Harrington offers his 14 top-10 finishes over the past 12 months as evidence of good form, the 14 cuts he's missed since his most recent victory in the 2008 US PGA underscores the baffling inconsistency which has beset the Dubliner in recent times.

One suspects that Harrington's qualities as one of the arch-grinders in golf are likely to be of more value to him at Firestone next week or at the upcoming US PGA at Whistling Straits than in a veritable birdie-fest over the Killeen course.

As McDowell suggested: "The golf course definitely is a bit of a race track, if you'll pardon that expression. It's in great shape, especially the greens, and with the forecast for more rain to keep them soft, someone is going to go crazy. A 59 could be on the radar."

'3' Irish Open,

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