Wednesday 19 September 2018

Comment: Rory McIlroy needs to keep putting gremlins at bay to do justice to the rest of his free-flowing game

Rory McIlroy Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

One minute you're bleeding. The next minute you're haemorrhaging. The next minute you're painting the Mona Lisa."

That was Mac O'Grady, an American teaching professional with such a love for the technical mumbo jumbo of the golf swing that his unlikely alliance with Seve Ballesteros in the 1990s raised more than a few eyebrows.

Darren Clarke Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Darren Clarke Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

When the technician is teaching the artist hope fades quickly. But O'Grady - real name Phil McGlennon - had a spiritual side that appealed to the then desperate Spaniard.

As Alistair Tait wrote in 'Seve: A Biography of Severiano Ballesteros', Seve was surprised to turn up at the American's Palm Springs home one day and find himself invited to his own funeral.

Not only had O'Grady filled a box with pictures of his "bad swings", he insisted they drive out into the desert and bury the evidence in an act designed to purge the Santander genius of all his ills, real or imaginary.

"It was a very happy funeral," Seve recalled, explaining how they had dug a hole and buried the box beneath the sand. "Then we prayed for two minutes and I asked that I should keep all my good habits and get a second wind."

It worked for a while and Ballesteros would go on to win the Spanish Open in 1995. But it turned out to be his last win and his decline a fateful reminder that even the blessed of the golfing world can be dragged into hell.

After they had parted ways, O'Grady later said: "I finally found someone more neurotic than me."

It's all part of golf's unceasing propensity to take the greats and poke them with a stick and if there's one aspect of the game that's closer to a dark art than a science, it's putting, as Rory McIlroy discovered when he let the greens "get into my head a little bit" en route to missing the cut in last weeks' AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

It's an art form that remains the great equaliser in the game and a science that even McIlroy finds as puzzling as trigonometry.

When he shot that course record, 11-under-par 61 at Royal Portrush in 2005, he was on automatic pilot from first to last, even on the greens.

"Coming down the last eight or nine holes, I just thought about the shot in front of me," he said some nine months before he turned professional.

"I am going to hit a seven-iron. I am going to draw it off that bunker. It's going to roll that way. Putt. Right edge. Firm. It was just shot by shot by shot. It wasn't, 'I've got this to go six- or seven-under' or whatever."

When McIlroy's putting matches the rest of his flowing game, it's a thing of sheer beauty.

But when the gremlins appear, it's the mental game that comes to the fore.

"I feel like there's a little more flow to my putting than there might have been a few weeks ago, just by trying to separate my technical thoughts on the golf course to doing my drills off it," he said before The Open last year.

"But when I get on the course I'm just really getting into trying to hole putts and not thinking too technically about it, and really focusing in on the target and being a little bit more reactive."

McIlroy isn't so much battling to become a better putter but trying to block out the noises outside the ropes telling him he's poor on the greens.

He certainly can't afford to putt badly but it's the voices in his head, not the goalkeeper in the hole, that's his biggest challenge.

Two years ago, when Jordan Spieth looked infallible on the greens (the American admitted last week his putting is in a mini-slump), Pádraig Harrington pointed out that obsessing about things said about your game in the media is the first step on the road to perdition.

"As long as he never pays attention to what the outside world thinks about him, he will be fine," Harrington said. "He is so good that the pressure from the outside world is going to be his biggest challenge going forward."

McIlroy knows he needs to work hard on the basics of the putting game to do justice to his often otherworldly ball-striking.

His 16-year-old self missed plenty of those four-footers but he was so intent on putting on a show, the genius of the great picture he was painting made the occasional smudge unnoticeable.

As his old pal Darren Clarke found out in The Open at Sandwich, when the crucial putts fell at last, consciously going unconscious is sometimes the only way to keep those naughty gremlins in their box.

Irish Independent

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