Thursday 21 February 2019

Four good men and true spearhead Irish Olympic efforts to remain at summit of the golfing world

After a year in which McIlroy proved he's No 1 and McGinley did Europe proud, Irish mission to strike gold in Rio is in good hands

Rory McIlroy and Paul McGinley will hope to revisit their Ryder Cup heroics by leading Ireland to an Olympic medal in 2016. Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy and Paul McGinley will hope to revisit their Ryder Cup heroics by leading Ireland to an Olympic medal in 2016. Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

Have we Irish died and gone to golf heaven? Rory McIlroy's the best player on the planet and Paul McGinley Europe's greatest Ryder Cup captain.

McIlroy's tigerish feats at The Open and US PGA, with the Bridgestone Invitational thrown in for good measure, brought his tally of Major titles to four, with the promise of many, many more.

Golfers from this island have scooped nine of 30 Majors since Padraig Harrington broke a 60-year drought at Carnoustie in 2007. Only the US, with 10, fared better and nobody else has won more than four.

With the R&A's decision in June to restore Royal Portrush to The Open rota, the game's oldest championship is expected to be played in Co Antrim in 2019.

McIlroy, 25, declared for Ireland at the Olympics and became patron to the Irish Open through his charitable foundation, a significant boost to the event.

McGinley's naming as Ireland's 'Golf Team Leader' at the 2016 Olympic Games is great on two fronts. It's fantastic that his exceptional managerial skills will be put to further good use, while the renewal of his grand Ryder Cup alliance with McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, 35, could yield a golden dividend in Rio.

Shane Lowry
Shane Lowry

Shane Lowry's arrival, at last, in the world's top 50 also gives him a glorious opportunity to push for a place at the 2016 Games and Ryder Cup. This 27-year-old has moxie: "If you'd thrown me onto that first tee on Friday at Gleneagles, there'd have been no bother."

McIlroy, McDowell and Lowry are Ireland's leading contenders for the Games - all three will make it if they're in the world's top 15 in July 2016. Padraig Harrington's recent win in Indonesia reminds us never to count him out but hopes of adding some Olympic gold to all that Major championship bullion rest with 'The Magician' McIlroy, 'The Man' McDowell and 'The Maverick' Lowry, all marshalled, of course, by 'The Maestro' McGinley.

The magician

Behind his dazzling play and gleaming silverware lies a cold truth.

Even World No 1 Rory McIlroy, one of the most naturally gifted golfers of all time, still must "dig in the dirt" each day for glory.

Through his career, McIlroy has scaled heady peaks of achievement then trundled into troughs. In 2014, however, he took firm control of his life and command of his game.

Inevitably, the eye is drawn to his spectacular hat-trick of victories at The Open in Hoylake, the Bridgestone WGC at Firestone and the US PGA at Valhalla. Yet the steel McIlroy (right, with the Claret Jug) showed in the face of on-course adversity earlier in the season heralded almost as loudly his graduation to a new level.

The Boy Wonder, who'd radiate brilliance one day but be consumed by slump-shouldered frustration the next, vanished, replaced by a young man with unimpeachable faith in his game, his conviction undimmed even by a harrowing sequence of Black Fridays last summer.

Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy
Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy

McIlroy not only returned to the pinnacle of world golf in 2014 but this time looks like he's there to stay. After a false dawn in 2012, the 'Rory Era' truly has begun.

"My mindset has been really good this year," he revealed towards the end of a tumultuous year. "I've found some sort of calmness on the course, an inner peace or whatever you want to call it. I'm really just going out there every round that I play and enjoying it and putting everything into it. It's working."

Trust is the key. Unshakeable confidence in his swing underpins the consistency which McIlroy himself rates as the most satisfying feature of his season.

"I'd like to put in a few years where the standard of golf stays at the same level for a long period," he explained. "I feel like I've started to do that. Even if I don't win, I'm still in the top 10. That's something I've gotten better at."

McIlroy's self-assurance has an inconspicuous source: the practice ground, where for the past 15 months he's worked assiduously with coach Michael Bannon.

He spoke a lot this year about his re-dedication to golf, even suggesting after May's break-up with Caroline Wozniacki that the game now is his girlfriend.

Last summer's blessed trinity at Hoylake, Firestone and Valhalla sparked comparison with Tiger Woods. Yet McIlroy and Tiger, if good friends and iconic golfers, haven't a lot in common.

Tiger has a manufactured, almost mechanical swing which requires frequent fine-tuning and occasional overhaul when essential parts blow, be it left knee or lower back.

McIlroy, though pumped and powerful, still is an artist, blessed with a low-maintenance swing. He's a better driver of the ball than Woods ever was, though nobody's ever putted with the same aura of entitlement as Tiger prior to the 'crash' of 2009. While Woods appeared myopic, even monastic in his mid-20s, McIlroy always had a life outside the ropes.

After his seismic success in 2012 (and signing a life-changing $100 million deal with Nike), he and Wozniacki took time out together that winter, time that needed to be spent bedding in his new Nike clubs. As his 2013 season opened, McIlroy was off-kilter and, bereft of form or confidence, fell into a nightmarish spiral lasting more than six months.

McIlroy's re-dedication to golf in the autumn of 2013 yielded a crucial, morale-boosting win at that December's Australian Open in Sydney, while his focus would be unaffected by off-course events, like his engagement to Caroline last January or its sudden termination in May.

Days later, he came from seven behind for a vital victory at Wentworth.

"Looking at this trophy, I think, 'How the hell did that happen'," he said. "I think this is the start of something." He was on course for what Rickie Fowler describes as "the best three-week stretch in the history of golf".

Winning July's Open, which sets him up for next April's 'Career Grand Slam' attempt at The Masters, was rated by McIlroy as his "greatest" success. He then eased back to World No 1 at Firestone before completing the treble with a resolute back-nine rally in the twilight at Valhalla.

Fatigue stymied his FedEx Cup bid but the Ulsterman made a stout effort to perform a leading role for Paul McGinley and Europe at the Ryder Cup. His demolition of Fowler that Sunday was mercurial.

The only player so far to win all four Majors before his 26th birthday is Tiger, 24 when he did it in 2000. At 25, he counted six Major titles among a whopping 33 Tour victories worldwide, dwarfing McIlroy's haul of 12 wins in 74 months as a pro. However, the Ulsterman has won four Majors, with the chance of another at Augusta, weeks before turning 26.

He's matured so much over 12 months that, despite a modest record at Augusta for one so perfectly suited to the course, it's easy to envision the 'new' Rory donning the Green Jacket.

First, McIlroy may endure up to six days in the witness box when proceedings against his former management company, Horizon, go to trial in February. Who knows how that'll affect him, if at all.

Should first-time US Open venue Chambers Bay on Puget Sound, play as hard and fast as expected in June, McIlroy may find it difficult to take full advantage of his power on that lengthy course. Yet don't be surprised if, weather-permitting, he retains the Claret Jug at St Andrews or the Wanamaker Trophy at Whistling Straits.

Frankly, Tiger's going to find it hard to win that 15th Major title now we've entered the McIlroy era.

The maverick

Shane Lowry knows he sometimes should put discretion before valour … but, damn it, where's the fun in that?

Lowry loves to play on the ragged edge, so eventful and highly-exciting times lie ahead for the Clara man in 2015 as his new status in the world's elite Top 50 grants him admission to golf's most challenging arenas.

It'll be fascinating to watch, especially in April, when Lowry makes his Masters debut. Augusta is the most cerebral test of all, where the cavalier fall like the Light Brigade (unless, of course, they're as ludicrously gifted and powerful as Bubba Watson).

Lowry, 27, has no intention of treading cautiously there or anywhere else: "I'm a very aggressive player. Sometimes I think maybe it's something I need to curb but, to be honest, it's hard to change your nature. Maybe someday I'll get more mature and change my strategy but I really enjoy the way I play. I know I've only won twice but I'm doing okay."

With €5-plus million earned in 54 months on Tour, 'okay' is an understatement … especially considering the massive upsurge in Lowry's form and fortunes since May's second place at Wentworth.

The previous four months were character-building. Lowry feared for his card after missing six cuts in eight events. "I was worried. There were a few times I sat in my hotel room, my head in my hands."

Yet that runner-up finish to McIlroy changed the complexion of his season and career; then a superb Sunday 65 at Hoylake clinched a share of ninth with G-Mac at The Open, while fifth in November's climax in Dubai propelled Lowry into the world elite. A week later, he proposed to Wendy Honner and now is enjoying a well-earned winter break (Lowry plans to kick off his 2015 campaign in California in February and, thanks to his new status, will play in the US until May).

"I'm a new man. A lot's changed in the last couple of months, all for the good. I've never been in a better place on and off the course."

With his batteries recharged in the spring, expect birdies, eagles and, no doubt, occasional sparks to fly as this archetypal Irishman returns to the fray. One cannot wait to see his phenomenal short game tested to the full at Augusta. He's long had the game but now has the opportunity and the self-belief to showcase his talent on golf's greatest stage.

The man

There's no 'i' in team ... or Graeme McDowell.

Paul McGinley tells a tale of Sunday at the Ryder Cup, when McDowell brilliantly came from three-down through five against Jordan Spieth to win the top singles match two-up.

Then, hearing his foursomes partner Victor Dubuisson was in a war of attrition with Zach Johnson, G-Mac ran through the teeming crowds and halfway across the course to lend moral support to the rookie, who emerged with a fighting half.

McGinley's faith in McDowell was of major significance to the World No 15. "It was the first time I was asked to be something more than a player," he explained. "I was asked to be a bit of a leader to Victor and to lead off the team on Sunday because of the player I'd become and my experience. It gave me huge belief that a guy like Paul McGinley, who'd done so much thinking about the Ryder Cup and had 12 very different personalities at his disposal, selected me to be a leader."

A fantastic year, in which wife Kristin gave birth to their first child, Vale, in August, bore on-course promise too as McDowell, 35, retained his French Open title; had 10 other top-10s in 23 ranking events and topped the putting charts in the US, where his average 69.642 placed him ninth in 2014.

Experience gained in four diverse seasons since winning the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach suggests he's ready to press for Major honours in 2015, when the premier US championship returns to a links-style course, Chambers Bay, on the West Coast, while The Open goes back to St Andrews.

The maestro

Pride wouldn't permit the PGA of America simply to ape everything Paul McGinley did at Gleneagles … so they convened an 11-man Task Force, including Tiger and Phil, to try and cure their Ryder Cup ills.

McGinley made several ingenious improvements to Europe's successful template, which should help Darren Clarke, the players' choice for Hazeltine in 2016, extend that fine record of eight wins in 10 Ryder Cups.

After such an accomplished performance, it's galling to think McGinley's appointment hinged on a display of player power by Rory McIlroy and Medinah colleagues.

As speculation spread of home hero Colin Montgomerie being asked to steer Europe into action at Gleneagles to counter Tom Watson's legendary status, World No 1 McIlroy made such a strong public plea for McGinley on the eve of the decisive vote in January 2012, it was impossible for Europe to look elsewhere.

America had gone the opposite way with Watson. Their aim was to end 'captaincy by consensus', erroneously thought to be a factor in the stunning reverse suffered by Davis Love and his team in 2012.

One didn't have to wait until Sunday and Phil Mickelson's post-match criticism of his captain to realise how much out of touch Watson was. Key errors with his pairings said it all.

Ironically, with five current Tour stars on the 11-man Task Force, the PGA of America now clearly acknowledges the importance of working with the players. It was a lesson hard-learned.

Yet America would have a better chance of emerging from crisis if they stopped bellyaching about their own shortcomings and fully acknowledged the class shown by McGinley and his team.

Irish Independent

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