Thursday 25 April 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'McIlroy a Major threat once more'

‘Victory in The Players Championship changes everything for Rory McIlroy as it makes that string of top-six finishes look ominous for his rivals rather than himself’. Photo: AP
‘Victory in The Players Championship changes everything for Rory McIlroy as it makes that string of top-six finishes look ominous for his rivals rather than himself’. Photo: AP
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Rory McIlroy's victory in the Players Championship couldn't have been more heartening. It's not just that it ended a frustrating 364-day winless run. The quality of the tournament made this McIlroy's biggest triumph since winning the PGA title five years ago.

More important still was the manner of victory. An hour and a half before the end of play an incredible 10 players were within two shots of the lead. McIlroy had to play under pressure all day, particularly after a double-bogey on the fourth hole saw him lose the lead. He regained it with a superb spell which saw birdies on the ninth, 11th and 12th holes.

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Then came a missed short putt on the 14th which suggested the pressure might be getting to the Irishman. Not a bit of it. He rallied to birdie the next two holes and parred the difficult last two to edge out Jim Furyk by a stroke.

It would have been a stern test of nerve under any circumstances, but the ordeal was surely worsened by the memory of so many near misses over the past year. McIlroy had finished in the top six in his previous five PGA events. Last year there was a second place in the Open, fifth in the Masters and sixth in the Bridgestone Invitational.

In all of the these events there were moments when it seemed McIlroy might kick on and win. He was second going into the last round of the Masters and the Bridgestone and had an eagle putt to tie the lead with five holes left in the Open. At this year's WGC event in Mexico, he closed to within two shots of Dustin Johnson at the third hole on the final day but three holes later had fallen five back.

The McIlroy near miss was becoming proverbial and led to suspicions that he lacked the rigour necessary to close the deal these days, strange though that was for a player who at his best seemed the very embodiment of the competitive spirit. Last Sunday's victory changes everything - it makes that string of top-six finishes look ominous for McIlroy's rivals rather than himself.

There's been an improvement in his game so far this season. He's hit 59.6 per cent of fairways, up from 55.8 per cent last term and 72.2 per cent of greens in regulation, up from 66.3 per cent. That compares favourably with his annus mirabilis of 2014 when his driving accuracy was 59.9 per cent and he was hitting 69.4 per cent of greens in regulation.

His old bugbear, putting, shows only a 26.3 per cent success rate from 10 to 15 feet. That's remarkable when the likes of Jason Day, Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler hole over 40 per cent from that range. Yet his birdie and eagle conversion rate is 35.8 per cent, up 2.7 per cent from last year which places him 15th in the rankings.

The glory of McIlroy's game remains his power off the tee where an average driving distance of 312 yards makes a mockery of par fives. The accuracy of his approach play also accounts for the fact that he ranks 18th for the number of putts taken per round, ahead of more adept green operators. Yet these impressive numbers meant little when McIlroy kept falling short.

Now, the removal of the monkey from his back bodes well for the season to come. He may even regain the world No 1 slot he last held in September 2015.

The perpetual fascination of McIlroy is that he is perhaps the most naturally gifted sportsman from this island since George Best. Were he to retire tomorrow, the four Majors he won between 2011 and 2014 would still make him one of the greatest of all Irish sports stars.

It's probably unfair that there's still an aura of unfulfilled potential surrounding McIlroy. The man's 95 weeks at the head of the world game has only been exceeded by Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo since the rankings began in 1986. Only two European golfers in the modern era, Faldo and Severiano Ballesteros, have won more Majors and only seven players have won more in the last 50 years.

But with great power comes great expectations. Some of the expectations surrounding McIlroy were too great. The talk of him becoming 'The New Tiger Woods' belied the fact that Woods is a singular phenomenon in golf history, his spell of dominance the exception rather than the rule. The old 'Rory can win as many Majors as he wants to' can also be consigned to the dustbin of wild hyperbole.

All the same, a player who'd won four Majors by the age of 24 should be expected to add to that total. When he won a second in a row at the 2014 PGA Championship, no-one would have thought the next four years would pass by without a McIlroy Major victory. If Jack Nicklaus's 18 Majors and Woods' 14 look out of reach, Gary Player's nine and Tom Watson's eight still seem achievable targets.

Yet McIlroy will need to be at his very best to do so. The number of players still in contention after the turn at Sawgrass was remarkable but far from unique. A similar logjam occurred at last year's British Open with four shots covering the top 11 finishers. Last year's Majors were twice won by a single stroke and twice by two strokes. That puts a premium on the kind of nerve McIlroy showed last week.

There are more world-class golfers than back in the days when Nicklaus and Woods ruled the roost. Every year seems to herald the arrival of new American wonderkids. It was 24-year-old Justin Thomas in 2017 with his PGA victory and subsequent brief annexation of the world No 1 slot. Last year another 24-year-old, Bryson DeChambeau, had four PGA Tour victories to zoom up the rankings.

This season's breakout figure is Xander Schauffele, 25, who's already won the World Golf Classic event in China and the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.

Jon Rahm, who led going into the final round at Sawgrass, is the most gifted European golfer to emerge since McIlroy. Since the 2014 PGA Championship, 12 different players have won the 16 Majors on offer.

Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that if one player was to impose some order at the top of the game, it would be McIlroy.

He may not be the new Tiger but he still seems like the heir apparent. Which is why it beggared belief to see him tumble down the world rankings in the past couple of years, a 2018 which promised so much ending with him 14th on the PGA money list. That's not a bad year's work for most people but it's a bit underwhelming for a genius.

His return to form should be a source of delight for all Irish sports fans. How many genuine world-class performers do we have at the moment? How many of them have we ever had? Yet few Irish sportsmen have suffered so much mean-spirited criticism than McIlroy. The slightest pretext, withdrawal from the Olympics, refusal to play an Irish Open which probably owes its survival to McIlroy, suffices to summon the trolls from under their bridges.

It all stems from the time a few years ago when the player refused to adopt the 'march with O'Neill to an Irish battlefield' attitude certain simple-minded folk feel should be compulsory for our sportsmen. Personally, I find McIlroy's laissez-faire attitude to nationality preferable to Michael Conlan entering the ring to 'ooh ah up the RA' or to Conor McGregor forever banging on about his patriotism while bringing Irishness further into disrepute with every foray into the public eye. The carping will continue nevertheless.

Yet Rory McIlroy's story is both an exemplary and an inspirational one. He has always borne himself with dignity and good humour, neither assaulting nor abusing anyone. And unlike his American rivals he does not come from a milieu of country club privilege.

Ten years ago his father Gerry told how when Rory was young, "I'd work from 8.0am to noon as a cleaner at a sports club. From 12.0-6.0pm I was a bartender at Holywood Golf Club; then after going home for tea I'd return to the sports club from 7.0-midnight to work behind the bar. I am a working-class man and that's all I knew to get the money we needed for Rory to be able to learn and compete at golf." Meanwhile, Rory's mother Rosie worked the night shift at a local factory.

All the hard work paid off. It's a great story. For one thing, it's a corrective to the notion peddled by McGregor apologists that 'Working-Class Culture' essentially consists of being obnoxious and aggressive. It doesn't. The clue is in the first word.

If you can't appreciate Rory McIlroy, that's your loss. He owes Ireland nothing. But he's given us plenty. There should be lots more to come in 2019.

IRFU have to open the purse strings to help women’s rugby back to where it should be

No Irish sports team has suffered such a catastrophic decline in recent years than the women’s rugby side. The Cork footballers are suffering a mere blip in form by comparison.

Last Sunday’s 24-5 defeat by Wales in Cardiff meant Ireland finished fifth in the Six Nations with just one win from five games. That fifth place is Ireland’s worst finish since 2006. If you take points difference into account, it represents the worst set of performances since 2004.

This comes just four years after a second Six Nations title in three years. In between came the famous victory over New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup which catapulted the team to the forefront of national attention.

Now Ireland are breaking new ground in the wrong direction. This year saw a first ever defeat by Italy and a first loss to Wales since 2011. Last year’s similarly underwhelming campaign witnessed a first loss in 12 years to the chronically weak Scottish team, who Ireland beat 73-3 in 2015. Ireland have fallen to tenth in the world rankings, behind Spain who don’t even play in the Six Nations.

Coach Adam Griggs complained last week that too much of a gap has developed between the fully professional English team and their rivals. “Our players will now go back to club rugby in Ireland and that’s just not the same level as the English Premiership or the French Championship. That’s where we struggle in terms of getting high-quality games, week in, week out.”

That’s a fair enough point, but Ireland’s problem at the moment isn’t that they’re a long way behind England, it’s that they’ve fallen behind Wales and Italy, something which would have been unthinkable under Griggs’ predecessor Tom Tierney.

Tierney’s departure led to the job of women’s manager being downgraded to a part-time post. The IRFU were warned of the likely consequences at the time and have now reaped the whirlwind.

Only two years ago the talk was of a major breakthrough for the women’s game in this country as Ireland prepared to host the World Cup. Hopes were high that Ireland could at least match the semi-final place achieved three years earlier in France. Instead they suffered a heavy defeat by France in the group stages and further losses to Australia and Wales saw the team finish in eighth position amid talk of the players being unhappy with the pre-tournament preparation.

Little has happened since to make anyone happier. The downgrading of the manager’s job was one retrograde step by the IRFU, the turning down of an offer from Australia to play a Test series there last summer was another. The retirement last week of Alison Miller (pictured), a player whose daring performances epitomised the glory days, seemed darkly symbolic. At a time when the profile of the Six Nations is increasing everywhere else, Ireland appear to have been left behind.

There are those who feel women’s sport doesn’t get a fair shake in the Irish media. The most obvious way this manifests itself is in a lack of coverage. But another is in the tendency of papers to overcompensate by adopting a cheerleading approach. It’s as though women’s teams, like children’s teams, should be congratulated merely for turning up.

Hence the somewhat simplistic coverage of the 2017 World Cup where everyone tripped over themselves to agree that the tournament had been a great success before a ball had even been kicked. In reality, the crowds turned out to be pretty disappointing, the Irish performances poor and the impact on the public imagination limited by the lack of a strong home showing.

To ignore the awful Six Nations campaign the Irish women’s team have just put in would be both patronising and sexist. Ireland have lost some key players and blooded several youngsters, but no team should decline at this rate. It seems evident that something has gone very wrong at international level and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

That team of Miller, Niamh Briggs, Sophie Spence et al was a wonderful exhilarating addition to the national sporting tapestry. But their triumphs were the result of huge hard work which had, inside a decade, brought Ireland from being also-rans to champions. It would be a terrible waste to see all that progress set at naught in a few years.

Back in October, the IRFU produced a ‘Women In Rugby’ plan whose targets over the next five years include consistent top-three finishes in the Six Nations and at least one title. The strategy has hardly got off to a flying start.

Rather than complaining about the professionalism of the opposition, perhaps it’s time the Union started offering full-time contracts to leading players. It’s not like the IRFU are short of money.

The last word

RTé will row in behind the O’Donovans now

In the summer of 2016, myself and a gang of other people were in the Horse and Hound pub in Skibbereen waiting to watch the first Olympic race of the O’Donovan brothers. We waited, and waited and next thing a guy came in and said, “Sure that race is over. They’re after winning it.”

RTé had, in their wisdom, decided not to show the race live, opting instead for analysis of Paddy Barnes’ defeat in his opening round fight. We weren’t too happy but, to play devil’s advocate, Barnes was one of the most popular sportsmen in the country at the time and his loss was big news.

Little has gone right for the Belfast man since and his crushing defeat by journeyman Oscar Mujica in New York on St Patrick’s Day, his second loss in a row as a professional, has sparked rumours that he may soon return to the amateur ranks, as you can do these days.

It says something about the ebb and flow of reputation that if there’s a timing clash between Barnes and O’Donovan at the 2020 Olympics, the rowing will be shown first.

* * * * *

One of American sport’s great occasions got under way last week as the top 64 college basketball teams in the country began their contest for the national title. They call it March Madness, and though the decider isn’t till April 8, it’s the first week of competition which seems to offer the archetypal experience as the games, and upsets, come at you thick and fast.

Duke, whose coach Mike Kryzewski is the second most successful in the competition’s history and who have one of their strongest ever teams, are hot favourites. But I’m hoping they’ll be turned over by Gonzaga from Spokane, Washington.

The Zags were runners-up two years ago but have never won the title. Perhaps they might be inspired by their rugby-playing namesakes in Dublin who made their own kind of history by reaching the Leinster Senior Cup final for the first time ever this year.

* * * * *

Guardiola, Klopp and Solksjaer have hogged the headlines this season but no managerial achievement has been more impressive than that of Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves. The 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final win over Manchester United was merely the latest highlight of a season where the Molineux club have looked very comfortable in the top flight and currently sit seventh in the table.

Anyone with a sense of tradition will welcome the Wolves revival. The great 1970s team of Derek Dougan, John Richards and Kenny Hibbitt is one of the first sides I can, just about, remember. An older generation will recall their famous 1954 win over a Honved side containing Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and other members of the great Hungarian team which beat England 7-1 earlier that year.

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