Thursday 22 March 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Rory McIlroy shaping up to be a fitting Bear apparent

Jack Nicklaus seems to have had a positive influence on McIlroy

'When asked if there was anything in the trophy-laden abode that he would like to take away with him, the 18-year-old pointed with a half-smile to the Claret Jug.'
'When asked if there was anything in the trophy-laden abode that he would like to take away with him, the 18-year-old pointed with a half-smile to the Claret Jug.'

Dermot Gilleece

In January 2008, when he was less than four months into a professional career, Rory McIlroy visited Pádraig Harrington's home in Rathmichael for a magazine photoshoot. When asked if there was anything in the trophy-laden abode that he would like to take away with him, the 18-year-old pointed with a half-smile to the Claret Jug which had giant-sized, artificial ladybirds on stems, sticking out of it.

Harrington won the grand old trophy at Carnoustie the previous July and would still have it more than a year later, after retaining The Open at Royal Birkdale. Now, as reward for a third Major triumph, it is in the possession of McIlroy who has emulated the man responsible for inspiring a generation of Irish golfers as aspirants to the game's elite.

Success, we're told, promotes success, though McIlroy's heaven-sent gifts are so lavish as to allow him transcend the norm in such matters. And it is significant that the greatest outside influence on a remarkable Hoylake performance came from none other than Jack Nicklaus, the most successful player in the history of the game.

"To me, Nicklaus certainly had a big impact on Rory's play last weekend. No doubt about it." These are the words of Sean O'Flaherty, who as McIlroy's manager and right-hand man, sat in on the meeting with the great man last month, prior to the US Open. A key aspect of their chat was that McIlroy should put himself and his golf-game first - "there is no other way of doing it" - which was central to the Bear's remarkable success, albeit with priceless support from his wife Barbara.

Not surprisingly, Nicklaus was very pleased with last weekend's outcome. Complimenting Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler for the manner in which they rose to the challenge of tackling a six-stroke lead, the Bear was especially impressed that McIlroy then did "what he had to do" by way of response.

"His short game was fantastic," he went on. "How many times when he pitched did he hit it up there, a foot from the hole? It was the best I've seen him swing the club in a long time. I was very interested and very excited to see such good golf in the last round of a Major. All of a sudden you get challenged, and you meet the challenge. It gives you a tremendous amount of confidence. He's walked off already getting ready for Augusta [next April]."

Asked what distinguished McIlroy from his peers, Nicklaus typically shunned hyperbole when replying: "What makes him special is that he's just good. He drives the ball a long way, hits it up in the air, which is very important to have the ability to do. Long is good, but when you're long and high, you can take advantage by doing that. It's amazing the guy does not have a larger stature. I also think he believes in what he can do."

He continued: "He was very impressive in every challenge he had all week, especially his second round. He must have got 9,000 questions about how bad he was [on Fridays], and he handled it beautifully, very impressively, by shooting 66. I was very, very proud of him."

Did he take personal credit for any particular aspect of the champion's performance? "I saw some things we talked about that he used," he said. "It seemed like he was working on what we talked about. I saw it all four days and whether it was from his own teacher, that's very difficult to answer. But I loved his golf swing. I thought it was really good. He didn't have some of the things I've seen cause him problems earlier [in the year]."

And why such interest in a lad from Holywood, Co Down, on the other side of the Atlantic? "I happened to take a liking to him," said the 74-year-old. "We met the first time in the Gardens Mall [West Palm Beach] when he was 19. He was driving a Honda car and he had a mop of hair. He stopped and was very pleasant and I enjoyed him. He came back a year later and had lunch with me. He's a really nice young man."

With a driver off the first tee and a target of reaching 20-under-par for the Championship, McIlroy approached the final round aggressively, just as Garcia and Fowler felt forced to do. And given that they were first and second in average driving distance over the four days, it is intriguing to compare the clubbing of the two Europeans, especially given their status among the game's finest ball-strikers.

As it happened, they used the same club off the tee only five times in the final 18 holes: 201-yard 6th - six-iron; 197-yard 9th - eight-iron; par-four 12th - three-wood; par-four 14th - three-wood; par-five 16th - driver. On the driving holes, McIlroy varied from driver to three-wood, two-iron, four-iron and six-iron (372-yard 4th) while Garcia used driver, three-wood, five-wood, three-iron five-iron and seven-iron (4th). All of which reflects the careful planning which went into negotiating one's way around punishing, fairway bunkers and dog-leg configurations.

McIlroy's superior length was probably best illustrated by their play of the 577-yard, par-five 16th where he followed a driver off the tee with a 218-yard seven-iron to 45 feet from where two putts delivered a birdie-four. From his drive, Garcia needed a six-iron shot of 244 yards which finished 30 feet from the hole, also leaving two putts for birdie.

When I watched a 19-year-old Garcia challenge Tiger Woods for the PGA Championship at Medinah in 1999, it seemed only a matter of time before Major success came his way. On the evidence of last Sunday, however, he is no nearer a breakthrough, even with six top-three Major finishes now to his credit.

And frailty with the blade doesn't seem to be the problem, given that 25 putts in the final round were five fewer than McIlroy, though they had the same total of 110 over the four days. Nor was the occasion seriously pressurised, given that every shot could be faced knowing that he had nothing to lose, having begun the final round six strokes adrift.

Just as every budding American in the 1980s was viewed as the "Bear Apparent", Garcia was seen as a logical challenger to Woods for the new millennium. But the damage inflicted by Harrington, both at Carnoustie and in the 2008 PGA at Oakland Hills, clerarly still endures.

Meanwhile, after winning his previous two Majors by eight strokes, McIlroy has shown he can also do it the hard way. To this end, he listened intently when Nicklaus pointed out that only four of his own Majors were the result of brilliant play; the other 14 were rewards for getting the ball around the course like nobody else could, while below his best.

The newly-crowned champion has had a predictably busy week. After bringing the Claret Jug home to the North, he had fitness tests on Wednesday and a company day on Thursday before heading yesterday for Akron, Ohio and this week's Bridgestone Invitational, followed by the PGA Championship at Valhalla, Kentucky.

Up again to number two in the world, he can face the future with considerable optimism, especially knowing that Woods will not be recapaturing former supremacy in the immediate future. And there is a marked paucity of Majors among the current leading practitioners..

Starting at the top, Adam Scott has one. And going down the list, Henrik Stenson has yet to win one; Justin Rose has one; Garcia has none; Bubba Watson has two; Matt Kuchar has none and Jason Day has none. On the other hand, McIlroy has joined very rare company as a three-time winner at 25.

Indeed he is doing just fine. And you suspect that this is exactly the way the Holywood star imagined things would turn out, when he stood as a teenager in Harrington's house six and a half years ago.

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