Thursday 18 January 2018

A Master in the making

Karl MacGinty

MICHAEL BANNON has watched Rory McIlroy grow from toddler into a tiger and has played an active part in helping the youngster develop his unworldly gift for golf since age seven.

So you'd imagine there's nothing McIlroy can do on the course that would surprise his quietly spoken mentor from Co Down.

You'd be wrong. Bannon never ceases to be amazed by McIlroy. He was thrilled, for example, by the fabulous five-birdie finish at the DP World Tour Championship on Sunday that elevated the 23-year-old to an entirely new level.

Words like "incredible" and "unbelievable" tripped off Bannon's tongue on Sunday evening in Dubai as the desert sun set on yet another astonishing day, another mesmeric season, in the life of Rory McIlroy.

There appears to be no limit to the Ulsterman's potential.

Bannon neatly captured the size of McIlroy's achievement over those final five holes at the Earth Course by saying: "Rory has done this his whole life, from when he was three, four, five and six years old. He always was 10 years ahead of his time (his peers).

"And now we're seeing it at this level too?" he added, shaking his head. "It's just fantastic."

The course-record 62 posted by Justin Rose as he surged two clear of McIlroy in the closing stages on Sunday would have had the effect of a concussive blast on the majority of his Tour rivals.

For McIlroy, however, it served as inspiration, a challenge to be savoured. That's something all the greats have inside, developing it from youth and holding it into old age.

Bannon says McIlroy has "the heart of a lion" and he showed that instinct down the stretch on Sunday.

Jack Nicklaus had it in 1986, for example, as he made eagle-birdie-birdie on holes 15, 16 and 17 at Augusta to register the most famous come-from-behind win in Masters history at age 46. Tiger Woods had just turned 24 when, in January 2000, I had the privilege of watching him hunt down Mark Brooks on Sunday afternoon at the AT&T National in Pebble Beach.

Woods came from seven behind with seven to play to win by two, cracking his opponent's resolve like an eggshell with an eagle-birdie-par-birdie finish.

His sixth consecutive PGA Tour victory indicated that Tiger had reached the height of his powers. It came as no surprise when he ripped up the record books in victory at that summer's US and British Opens; then won the US PGA and 2001 Masters to become the only man to hold all four of golf's Major titles at the same time.

The DP World Tour Championship, finale to the European Tour's Race to Dubai, is not a Major, but in victory last Sunday, McIlroy signalled his arrival alongside Nicklaus and Woods in the ranks of golf's 'Special Ones', those blessed with the power to intimidate opponents just by turning up.

Nick Faldo said after McIlroy ran away with a second Major title at August's US PGA that his rivals will know they're playing for second place anytime the Holywood star turn's up with his 'A' game. More importantly, he added, McIlroy will know it too.

Just over three months later, the world No 1 and his opponents now have learned that McIlroy's 'C' game is good enough. "That's been the big difference this year," McIlroy said on Sunday. "When I'm not playing my best I'm still able to compete and, I guess, able to win tournaments.

"That's something I wanted to get better at. Being able to win without my best game is, I guess, what Tiger's done for so many years. That's why he's won so many tournaments. I'm not at that level quite yet, but I'm learning how."

As ever, McIlroy's modesty becomes him. Sunday's victory and the manner in which it was achieved represent another watershed in his career.

How interesting that it came less than 15 miles from the Emirates Club, where he achieved his first Tour win as a pro in the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic.

On that occasion, McIlroy, just 19, led by six with six to play but dropped shots as he was hounded down the stretch by Rose, eventually finishing one ahead, courtesy of a nerve-jangling up-and-down from a back bunker at 18.

The epic journey he has made since then has been powered by McIlroy's thirst for knowledge and improvement.

Those who recall Lee Westwood's pleasure at "bullying" his young rival into submission at the 2009 Race to Dubai finale will be struck by the significance of last Sunday's final result, when McIlroy's closing 66 helped him equal the Englishman's tournament-record 23-under-par.

Even when he clinched a sensational first PGA Tour win with a 62 on Sunday at the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship, critics questioned McIlroy's putting as they pointed to his relatively low strike rate of just two wins in three years as a pro.

His shocking Sunday afternoon meltdown at the 2011 US Masters provided the doubters with more ammunition, but McIlroy, showing remarkable maturity, drew strength from that setback.

He took counsel from Nicklaus, Greg Norman and, crucially, Dave Stockton, America's foremost short game guru, who encouraged McIlroy to putt with the same freedom and rhythm as his golf swing. Seventy days after Augusta, he won the US Open.

Congressional was the first of eight victories McIlroy has registered in 37 individual stroke-play events since June 2011. He'd finish top-three in nine other events and enjoy five further top-10s.

His win at the Honda Classic last March, defying a late run by Tiger, established McIlroy as Irish golf's first world No 1, but he'd wobble off course on Saturday at the US Masters and miss four cuts in five events during a form slump in May and June.

However, a few words of advice from Stockton at Firestone in August flicked a switch in McIlroy's head, putting him in the perfect frame of mind to win the following week's US PGA.

On his way to victory at Kiawah, McIlroy gave blazing examples of the shots he and Bannon have added to his repertoire, making him an all-round more accomplished player in 2012.

His best shot of the season came in a howling gale on Friday at the US PGA, when he held up a fabulous 250-yard four-iron against the right-to-left wind and landed his ball six feet from a truly vicious pin at 14.

Through hard work on the range, 'The Kid' learned to reap the wind.

"It's never easy," said Bannon, named last week as UK High-Performance Coach of the Year. "But when Rory gets on his game, he's on a completely different level. He has it in him and can draw it out whenever he needs it."

Importantly, McIlroy and his management team at Horizon have also reached that point on the learning curve where they know what's best for the player. They won't be bullied or cajoled out of a lighter 22-tournament schedule in 2013, which gives him the opportunity to contend, Tiger-style, virtually every time he tees up.

"I've done my schedule and I'm sticking to it," McIlroy vowed as, hand-in-hand with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, he headed into his winter break. He'll return to action in Abu Dhabi on January 17, followed by the Accenture WGC Match Play, his defence at Honda, the WGC Cadillac in Doral and then the Shell Houston Open, a fortnight before the US Masters.

As his five-year endorsement contract with Jumeirah expires this winter (making further space for his $200m-plus mega deal with Nike), McIlroy misses the Dubai Desert Classic for the first time.

He also drops Memphis, the week before the US Open, but will persevere with his bid to make the cut for the first time at The Players and "see what the weekend's like" at Sawgrass.

Yet it's the prospect of seeing the 'new' McIlroy return to Augusta next April that will keep golf fans everywhere warm this winter, and give his rivals sleepless nights. For the latter, a terrible beauty was born in Dubai.

Irish Independent

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