Thursday 19 September 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Rory McIlroy in search of New Year boost'

Holywood ace knows a good start will be vital as he turns his primary focus to the US in 2019

‘We shouldn’t be surprised if Rory McIlroy is once more heading the field at Lahinch for the Irish Open, which he revitalised so dramatically, prior to the 2015 staging at Royal Co Down’. Photo: Getty
‘We shouldn’t be surprised if Rory McIlroy is once more heading the field at Lahinch for the Irish Open, which he revitalised so dramatically, prior to the 2015 staging at Royal Co Down’. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

Of the four Irish players to have battled with Tiger Woods down the stretch, three revelled in the experience. The capacity of the fourth one, Rory McIlroy, to recover from a collapse before a resurgent El Tigre at East Lake last September will determine his prospects for the coming season.

After a decidedly subdued competitive departure from 2018, McIlroy is now looking towards his first appearance in the Sentry Tournament of Champions on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, starting on January 3. Interestingly, he becomes only the third Irish player to do so, following Darren Clarke in 2004 and Graeme McDowell in 2011.

McDowell was involved in a memorable head-to-head with Woods only a month prior to his appearance in Hawaii. And the other member of the Tiger-quartet is Pádraig Harrington, who clearly preferred to celebrate the New Year with his family than traipse off during the festive season to Maui, where he was qualified to be in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2016.

This is a time of year when I'm reminded of Sam Snead's reaction in 1980, on becoming the first player in history to win tournaments in six different decades. "How long are decades these days?" the Slammer mischievously enquired. Not long enough, say my generation.

In which context, it hardly seems almost 19 years since I watched Clarke gain a thrilling victory over Woods in the 36-hole final of the 2000 Accenture World Match Play at La Costa, California. The most remarkable aspect of that 4 and 3 win, was the confidence with which the Dungannon man handled a fearsome opponent.

Harrington's turn came six years on, in the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan. It was while walking off the 71st green, all-square, that the Dubliner noted a marked change in the body language of his playing partner. "I had clearly aroused his interest, making him a different animal altogether," he recalled.

Less than an hour later, courtesy of some extraordinary wedge play against the world's No 1, he had secured a sudden-death victory which was unquestionably the most significant of his career up to that point. "When it was all over, I found myself remarking that Tiger really wanted to be pushed, no matter what," Harrington added. "Sure he wanted to win, but he also wanted the competition."

McDowell became even more acutely aware of this, on the final day of the Chevron World Challenge in 2010, six months after his US Open triumph at Pebble Beach.

From four strokes back, he recovered to force a play-off with a 20-foot birdie putt on the last and then beat Woods with a similar effort at the first extra hole.

"Down the stretch, I sensed how much Tiger wanted to win," he told me in Hawaii. "That's probably the only thing I sensed. How badly he wanted it. We didn't exchange any words. I imagine I said something when we shook hands but I can't remember. I haven't seen him since."

He added: "Looking at my face on the replay, I looked almost apologetic. That was because of how much he wanted to win it, even though it wasn't a regular PGA Tour event. I certainly relished being part of it."

Interestingly, it was the first time seasoned observers could recall Woods feeling good after a loss. "It was a great week, even though I didn't win," he said afterwards, despite ending the year without a trophy.

Woods the competitor was captured even more graphically three months later at Doral by Ernie Els, a player who has suffered at his hands more than most. "It's been a tough 10 or 12 years," said Els. "Tiger was the dominant player. For myself and other guys to have played under a guy who was that good, we took a beating."

In the autumn of 2012, when McIlroy was the reigning PGA champion, he appeared with Woods in a specially arranged matchplay field to herald the launch a year later of the Turkish Airlines Open. When I expressed surprise that Woods had played nine holes in practice immediately on arriving in Turkey, McIlroy said: "I was a little surprised too. But that's him. He likes to be on the go all the time. I'd love to have some meaningful battles with him coming down the stretch at big tournaments including the Majors, of course. That's the stuff we really want to do."

Yet, in acknowledging that temperamentally they were very different people, he added: "I can't bring the intensity he brings to it every week. He can sort of turn it on, which is impressive. It's something that I struggle to do sometimes."

After promising rounds of 67, 68 and 66 in the PGA Tour Championship last September, McIlroy talked about the prospect of walking the final day's fairways with Woods. Three strokes adrift, he was asked what was so difficult about catching "a guy like Tiger" in that situation.

"It's difficult," McIlroy acknowledged. "Look, he's a notoriously great front-runner, but if I go out and I play similar tomorrow like I did today, I'll have no complaints."

There were no post-tournament comments from McIlroy when he proceeded to complete the event with a dispiriting 74. Granted, Woods lacked the sparkle he normally brought to climactic rounds, but a 71 was still sufficient to secure his 80th tournament win - six strokes clear of the Holywood star in tied seventh. Not for the first time, McIlroy simply couldn't chisel out a score when he needed to compete.

A change of approach in 2019 sees him placing greater emphasis on US events, starting on a course where Clarke reduced the 663-yard downhill 18th to a drive and gentle five-wood second-shot in 2004. For the record, Birr's Richie Coughlan became the first Irish player to complete four rounds in Hawaii, which he did in the Sony Open at Waialae CC in Honolulu in 2001. After an opening 65, Coughlan eventually finished 51st behind Brad Faxon.

Recent reports of McIlroy's proposed schedule for next year have been dominated by speculation that he may bypass the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch, which would be a particular disappointment to Paul McGinley, who has taken over as tournament host. My feeling, however, is that McIlroy will be there, even though his schedule will not be finalised until after the Masters in April.

It seems that his threats regarding events on this side of the pond concern issues he has with the European Tour, rather than his own preferred tournament choices. So, we shouldn't be surprised if he's once more heading the field in the Irish Open, which he revitalised so dramatically, prior to the 2015 staging at Royal Co Down.

In the meantime, the Plantation Course, which first gained widespread recognition through Sandy Lyle's Kapalua International victory in 1984, could provide him with the sort of early-year boost in confidence which Dubai delivered on the occasion of his breakthrough success on February 1, 2009.

Behind the scenes, however, Kapalua is unlikely to measure up to 2006. That was when those of us attending the tournament under the Mercedes banner experienced the delightful treat of an appearance by The Eagles in our local hotel. In the event, Glenn Frey's advice, "Just find a place to make your stand/And take it easy," hardly fills McIlroy's needs at this time.

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