Wednesday 17 January 2018

Fickle form can make a mockery of expectation

The Irish Open brings different goals and pressures for home players, writes Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy is temporarily missing the game to thrill an eager audience
Rory McIlroy is temporarily missing the game to thrill an eager audience

Dermot Gilleece

Scan the scoreboard from any direction on Friday evening, and there were sub-par contributions from Irish players demanding attention. Yet the supreme irony of a remarkably fruitful exercise for relatively modest home challengers lay in well-founded fears about the country's leading lights.

It reflected familiar refrains which dominated the eve of the championship. The suffocating pressure of expectation and the acute awareness of spectator disappointment at a shot going wrong. Only Shane Lowry dissented from these views. Only Lowry survived.

Which brought to mind similar circumstances back in June 1972 in the Carrolls International, three years before it metamorphosed into a revived Irish Open. It was when the public's expectations, mine included, were focused not on a group of leading home practitioners, but exclusively on one, local hero.

At a time when hard copy was king, I happened to file the Monday morning report of Michael McDonnell in the Daily Mail. It read: "The streets of Dublin emptied yesterday for the customary pilgrimage to nearby Woodbrook to see Christy O'Connor win the Carrolls International golf title for a fourth time." A reward of £2,500 confirmed for McDonnell "the suspicion he is the man for whom four-figure prize cheques were intended."

The scribe then added: "With a handful of ambitious young pros all anxious about their chances in the last round, the old campaigner (O'Connor was then a venerable 47) subtly erupted on the second hole and strung together three birdies to leave the rest of his challengers in no doubt they were in it for place money." His final round, incidentally, was a 67 for a 12-under-par winning aggregate of 284.

As late as 1982, when he was 57, O'Connor shared third place in the Irish Open with none other than Nick Faldo and Greg Norman behind John O'Leary at Portmarnock, despite battling 'flu. And when precious skills were dulled and his competitive days were at an end, he would talk wistfully about the roar of the crowd, and how much he missed it. He was at heart a performer who delighted in giving the home supporters something to cheer about. And not a word about pressure.

Therein lay a possible clue to the source of Rory McIlroy's current torment; of his bewilderment as an ill-functioning swing led him ruinously off the scoring track. Always delighted to be showing off, from his earliest days capturing headlines as an amateur, he is temporarily missing the game to thrill an eager audience.

One imagines it would be inconceivable to him right now to repeat the bold statement of a glorious iron to tap-in distance on the short 10th at Congressional 2011, or the bravado of Kiawah Island last August.

That was when, seven strokes clear with one hole to play and aware that this was the record for the event set by Jack Nicklaus, he turned to his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, and suggested a win by eight. Which, of course, he did, by the improbable sinking of a 20-foot birdie putt from the left fringe of the last green.

Either way, it seemed decidedly odd to be wondering about the survival prospects of those players on one-over par, when the clubhouse lead stood at nine-under, and a latter-day warrior in Jose-Maria Olazabal had rolled back the years to sweep through to the weekend on seven-under.

Meanwhile, the nature of their work makes it perhaps inevitable that players' lives should be shaped by tour events. But the Irish Open has had an unusually profound impact on Sweden's Patrik Sjoland, who is making his first appearance in a European Tour event since last September.

Shaping approach shots in brisk winds towards the exposed, elevated greens of the Montgomerie Course seemed to revive a links feeling from more productive times, 13 years ago. In the event, it delivered an improbable second-round 70 on Friday to get Sjoland inside the qualifying limit on one-under par.

Seven weeks before heading for the Irish Open's millennium staging at Ballybunion, the birth of his first child, Hugo, ensured he played there "on a high," culminating in a surprise victory over fellow countryman, Freddie Jacobson, with Paul McGinley third. Five years later, however, Sjoland lost his card and proceeded to absent himself from the tournament scene for five months, so as to monitor the progress of second son, Ludwig.

"I missed the kids," he said with crushing simplicity. "Looking at the prospect of going back to the same places I'd already visited made me realise that I was just so fed up with golf and travel. Especially travel. And I began wondering whether it was worthwhile going away. I just didn't want to leave home."

Fortunately, there have been no problems arising from the removal of his spleen after a near-fatal crash sent him hurtling through a car's sun-roof in January 1992. Compensatory injections every five years are the only long-term consequence. "The shots are necessary because of the additional risk of infection when you don't have a spleen," he explained.

Home for the Sjoland family is Gislaved, Sweden, where a major upheaval occurred on the Saturday of the 2009 Irish Open at Baltray. That was when Ulrika phoned her husband to tell him she had suffered a stroke.

Yet as quickly as she blurted out the bad news, she was insisting that he finish the tournament. Which he did, carding a final-round 75 to share 50th place with McIlroy, future Irish Open champion Ross Fisher, and the 1990 winner, Olazabal, for prize money of €12,300.

"I haven't been doing much these days, so being here for the weekend is a nice surprise," he

went on. "After what happened to my wife, there wasn't much inspiration for tournament play. So I just did a little bit on the Swedish Tour. Even after getting my card back at the end of '09, I couldn't seem to regain the old enthusiasm. The magic had gone." In fact the last prize money he took from an Irish Open was €6,450 for a share of 66th place behind Fisher at Killarney in 2010.

"I'm back again because Ireland is special to me," he continued. "You always want to come back to the tournament that you won. You Irish like to talk very much, so I'm always asked where I'm from and what I do. And when I say I'm a golfer and give my name, they say, 'Oh! You won at Ballybunion'. It seems like most of the people I've met here know I won at Ballybunion." He smiled. "I've also had some good results in the Smurfit European Open at The K Club. I like the Irish courses. I like the Irish people. It's fun to come here."

And what of the future? Apart from September's Italian Open, where he is also exempt as a former winner, Sjoland has no firm plans. "All I know is that at 42, I haven't given up on golf," he said. "My game's been so-so for the last few years, but playing against the younger guys in Sweden has sparked my interest again. And the money won't last forever. I have to earn a living.

"We'll see how things go over the next few months. Play some on the Swedish and the Nordic League. Play Italy. Then back to the Tour School. That's the plan. Then we'll see what we can do."

One imagines that a repeat of the survival qualities which have characterised his battle here would go a long way towards ensuring pleasantly bright happenings down the line.

Irish Independent

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