Sunday 22 July 2018

Dermot Gilleece: It can be dire Straits for some, but Rory McIlroy's fit to conquer Dye's creation

It won't be a limp effort from McIlroy at the final major as he puts injury behind him, writes Dermot Gilleece

The 223-yard 17th, where designer Pete Dye employs his much-loved device of a testing par three as the penultimate hole
The 223-yard 17th, where designer Pete Dye employs his much-loved device of a testing par three as the penultimate hole
Whistling Straits graphic

Dermot Gilleece

Striking confidence was evident in Rory McIlroy's management team at St Andrews last month regarding their charge being ready for Whistling Straits, although it was only four weeks away. In fact, one of them was so upbeat as to suggest odds of 4/5 on his being fit to defend the PGA Championship.

And so it has come to pass, prompting images of a carefully-planned recovery programme which included two weeks at the Portuguese resort of Quinta do Lago and which will culminate today in a flight to Wisconsin.

Despite a frustrating lack of information, one can only admire the thoroughness of an undertaking which will have McIlroy back in competitive action on Thursday, fully recovered from a ruptured left ankle sustained on July 4. Moreover, he is returning to the fruitful terrain where he finished third behind Martin Kaymer in the 2010 championship.

The prospect of himself, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler in pursuit of the last Major of the year lends an unexpected edge to a recent observation by Arnold Palmer. On being asked if this trio could be compared to the original Big Three of himself, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the King told Global Golf Post: "Possibly. And McIlroy may be the best of the three. I like him very much. I like his golf, his swing and I like the way he plays."

As to the injury sustained in a kickabout with pals, Palmer said: "When I was 26, I did everything I wanted to do. So I've got sympathy for him."

Whistling Straits was created through the indulgence of an owner with very deep pockets, who funded 13,126 truckloads of sand for the maverick manoeuvrings of Pete Dye. The designer's vision transformed a 560-acre saucer-shaped army base into a stunning landscape of humps and hollows overlooking Lake Michigan.

A copywriter with a somewhat vague notion of the old country described how the enfant terrible of American golf course architects sculpted "a bit of Ireland and a touch of Scotland out of the Wisconsin coastline". In more basic language, it is parkland bearing the great look of genuine, links terrain.

McIlroy was gently indulgent when asked about his experience there five years ago, saying: "From what I can remember, it was pretty hot and humid - so there was a lot of moisture in the air and the guys probably didn't get the golf course as firm as they would have wanted it.

"For that part of the world it's as linksy as you're going to get."

Dominated by fescue grass when it was opened in 1998, the fairways have since succumbed to intrusive rye and meadowgrass, encouraged by hot summers and frequent irrigation. The well-watered greens and their surrounds, however, have been bent-grass from the outset and provide softer, more receptive targets than would be natural to a links course here.

This is where Spieth will have us thinking of how close he came to a tilt at history when only a stroke out of a play-off at St Andrews. And where the supporting Irish cast includes Shane Lowry, who missed the cut there after an ugly second-round 79 on his PGA debut in 2010. In fact, Irish form at Whistling Straits, other than from McIlroy, has been moderate to poor, as reflected in two missed cuts by Graeme McDowell, tied 45th and a missed cut from Padraig Harrington and a contrasting tied 13th and tied 48th from Darren Clarke.

The 2010 staging will also be remembered for Dustin Johnson, mistaking a trampled bunker to the right of the fairway on the 72nd hole for a waste area, so incurring a two-stroke penalty for a grounded club, with the title beckoning. It was also when Kaymer beat Bubba Watson in a play-off and McIlroy shared third place with Zach Johnson, the recently-crowned Open champion.

Keenly aware of the desire to hammer the ball enormous distances these days, Dye responds by making his creations as psychologically hostile as possible. He did it at Kiawah Island, where McIlroy was such an impressive winner, and the strategy is also evident at Sawgrass - where players find themselves projecting to the dreaded short 17th and its island green, long before it's time to play it.

Heading for his 90th birthday in December, Dye said: "From a visual point of view, I want players to feel uncomfortable. I want to make them think about the challenge." This has been achieved at Whistling Straits through visual intimidation with countless bunkers. As McIlroy learned so effectively at Kiawah, a professional will know from practice rounds that a certain hazard is, say, to the right of the landing area. Yet standing on the tee and with only memory to guide him, the distant sand suddenly seems to be on the other side.

It works so well that this week's course will measure 7,514 yards, compared with 7,597 in 2004. Yes, it's actually shorter, due to alterations to the opening hole which have reduced it from 491 to 408 yards. Yardages on the other 17 are unchanged - including the 223-yard 17th, where Dye employs his much-loved device of a testing par three as the penultimate hole.

With so much emphasis on big hitting it seems entirely appropriate that the organisers should be repeating the Long Drive Competition, which was revived at Valhalla last year. Nothing seems to stir the blood more than the image of balls being smashed prodigious distances, sometimes by remarkably slight practitioners.

The exercise can also highlight equipment changes over the years, though the nature of the terrain has proved to be a far more influential factor. As in the long drive event won by a 27-year-old husky American named Jim Jamieson on the eve of the Alcan Golfer of the Year Tournament at Portmarnock in September, 1970.

His seemingly modest effort of 241 yards for the princely reward of £50 can be attributed to rain-soaked terrain and a stiffening wind rather than the inferior equipment of the day. For instance, using the smaller ball on the eve of the Martini Tournament at Sundridge Park, nine years previously, Joe Carr emerged victorious with a seriously impressive effort of 311 yards, two feet and three inches.

By way of proving that long hitters have always been long, irrespective of time and equipment, the original long drive contest associated with the PGA was in 1952, when a certain Harold Williams won with an effort of 329 yards. Louis Oosthuizen won with 340 yards last year. Perhaps most interesting of all is that, using a persimmon driver, Jack Nicklaus hit a wound ball 341 yards, 17 inches in 1963.

McIlroy produced a thrilling, final nine when capturing the PGA title at Valhalla 12 months ago. Since then, the Major scene has been dominated by Spieth, who reached the grand old age of 22 on July 27. If his Masters victory last April was remarkable, success in the US Open at the quirky Chambers Bay was astonishing, especially with Dustin Johnson having had two putts for the title from 12 feet on the 72nd green, only to fail.

Spieth then had a third successive Major within his grasp at St Andrews, notwithstanding a four-putt double-bogey when negotiating the short eighth for the last time. As it happened, he was eventually deprived of a play-off by missing an eight-footer for par on the treacherous 17th.

Since then, there has been an overdue, recent victory by Jason Day in the Canadian Open where, unlike St Andrews, he managed to get his putts up to the target. And last weekend there was a hugely impressive maiden win by Troy Merritt in the Quicken Loans event, serving to emphasise the extensive talent currently on display on the US side of the pond.

Dammit, even Tiger Woods is demanding notice - though he has yet to provide solid evidence of a meaningful return to form. The sort of wild driving seen in his recent efforts would be ruthlessly exposed at Whistling Straits where, incidentally, he finished a moderate 24th in 2004 and tied 28th in 2010.

Much as his many admirers will be yearning for signs of redemption, Woods must first deliver in the heat of weekly skirmishes if he's to be taken seriously once more as a threat in battles at the highest level.

Finally, during a meeting with Dye some years ago, I asked him to describe the sort of house his architectural skills might produce. He replied that he had, in fact, designed a house in the West Indies which had no windows. And it struck me that his courses are similarly notable for the absence of escape routes. Which will be the least of McIlroy's concerns, given what he's been through in simply getting there.

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