Tuesday 16 January 2018

Grounding is good for McIlroy, bad for Johnson

Rory McIlroy is an extraordinary talent, but not the finished article, writes Dermot Gilleece

Early in April 1985, when Martin Kaymer was a little bundle just over three months old, I happened to be in the golf resort of Albarella near Venice where Ireland were qualifying for the inaugural Dunhill Cup. Having learned early on the Monday morning the outcome of the US Masters at Augusta, I asked the Irish players over breakfast to guess the surprise winner.

Though he was not privy to the information, Des Smyth instantly piped up: "Bernhard Langer." And in that moment, he and colleagues Ronan Rafferty and Eamonn Darcy were aware of a new dawn for German golf.

Though the ensuing steps were slow, progress remained solid. In late autumn 1990, Langer and Torsten Giedeon gained the first international victory for a newly-united Germany when capturing the World Cup in Orlando. And the trophy was regained in 2006 when Langer had Marcel Siem as his partner. In between, Langer won a second Masters title in 1993.

Against this background, it was hardly surprising to hear Kaymer acknowledge at Whistling Straits that Langer "obviously inspired me when I was a kid, and I hope that I, too, can inspire teenagers and make golf more popular in Germany." He was also honest enough, however, to name Ernie Els as a later role model, saying: "I just love how that guy swings the golf club."

The superbly-controlled nature of Kaymer's victory brought to mind a recent remark by Colin Montgomerie regarding Langer's legendary precision, especially as a Ryder Cup partner. "These (Germans) are the guys who put together Mercedes and BMWs," said Monty with glorious pomposity. "Fancy playing with a technician like that . . ." And not a mention of a Porsche or a Bugatti Veyron!

Corey Pavin took a more down-to-earth view. "Obviously Martin played great," said the US Ryder Cup captain. "The putt he made on 18 (Kaymer's 72nd) was a pretty incredible putt. Those are the putts a player dreams about making. He played extremely solid golf, is a great ball-striker who does everything well and is going to be a tough guy to play against out there (at Celtic Manor)."

One suspects Pavin will have similar views about Rory McIlroy, given yet another brilliant display in a major championship by the Holywood star. It's the third top-three McIlroy has had at this level, coming after last year's PGA at Hazeltine and the recent Open Championship at St Andrews.

Inevitably, comparisons are prompted with Sergio Garcia who charmed the golfing world when, as a 19-year-old, he skipped up the 16th fairway in the 1999 PGA at Medinah after hitting a miraculous six-iron onto the green from between the roots of a tree. That was when he seriously challenged Tiger Woods for the title before finishing second.

By the time he was 21, Garcia had won five tournaments -- three in Europe and two in the US: McIlroy has one on each tour. And apart from victory in the 2008 Players Championship, the Spaniard was tied third in the 2005 US Open and the 2006 PGA, runner-up to Pádraig Harrington in the 2007 Open and tied second behind Harrington in the 2008 PGA.

As recently as March last year he was ranked second in the world. Now he is down to 51st and on a two-month break from the game in a season which has seen him achieve a best tournament finish of tied 14th at St Andrews, though he reached the semi-finals of the Accenture Matchplay last February.

Now 30, Garcia appears to have lost his way, having promised so much, so early. And a difficult attitude has seen him make few friends on either side of the fairway ropes.

Here comparisons with McIlroy should end though. From my observations, it is nigh impossible to see the same happening him, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, McIlroy is technically far superior as a golfer to Garcia at the same age, though there are still obvious limitations in the Northerner's game. They are also very different individuals. And without going the potentially invidious route of drawing comparisons between their family backgrounds, it is clear that McIlroy is extremely well grounded.

"You have to look at what's going on," said his manager, Chubby Chandler. "You see what's happening to Sergio and you have to take things out of that, to make sure it doesn't happen to Rory. And there are ways of doing it. It's not a matter of protecting him from anything. It's just common sense. You're just trying to help him plan his career in a fashion that will help him last a long time."

McIlroy is acknowledged as having arguably the finest swing in tournament golf right now. But this doesn't make him the complete golfer: far from it. For instance, the little knock-down irons which Darren Clarke used to such splendid effect in the crosswinds of Whistling Straits are not yet part of McIlroy's armoury.

As Chandler admitted: "Improvements will come in his shot-making and decision-making. He's already a great shot-maker but it's the same, stock shot all the time (the high draw). So there's quite a bit to do, technically, including how he handles the wind. In four years' time, if we have this same conversation, he'll be playing very differently. Including having a lower ball flight."

All of these adjustments will be guided by Michael Bannon, who has been the player's only coach since he took his first tentative swings with a golf club when he was about five. This includes putting, which sometimes appears to be an Achilles heel, though the actual stroke has improved significantly over the last year.

It seems almost farcical to criticise this aspect of the game in a player who has shot 61 around Royal Portrush and who gained his first US Tour victory at Quail Hollow last May with a closing 62. Not to mention a 63 on the opening day at St Andrews. And middle rounds of 68 and 67 carded at Whistling Straits.

His three putts on the 15th last Sunday, however, were very costly. From my standpoint, the real problem was his apparent failure to follow the roll of the first putt past the target. Otherwise it's difficult to understand how he clearly misread the return four-footer, which broke far more to the right than he anticipated.

These are the sort of skills he will most certainly learn, given his exceptional talent. A greater variety of shots will also help him better manage his game, which was the supreme strength of Jack Nicklaus.

Meanwhile, in the context of the progress he has made so far, it is necessary to remind ourselves that in only eight major championships as a professional, this 21-year-old has had three top threes, one top 10 and one top 20. Several Irish players of recent vintage went through entire careers without even approaching this prominence.

All of which owes much to the calm reassurance he receives from his parents, Rosie and Gerry. And the protection he gets off the course from his caddie, JP Fitzgerald. As Chandler put it: "Rory needs a different sort of caddie at 21 than he will at 31. And at the moment, JP is the perfect man for the job, on and off the course."

"Rory's learning all the time and I think next year will be a big year for him," said his Dad. "From getting into these positions and coping with the setbacks, he's becoming more mature. I happen to think he's good enough to win at this level but the important thing is that Rory knows he's good enough."

Finally, Declan Branigan claims Dustin Johnson was hard done by in being penalised on the 72nd for grounding his club in a hazard. "Bunkers are manufactured depressions, filled with sand and with clearly defined boundaries," said the former champion amateur who now specialises in golf-course architecture and maintenance. "In my opinion, Johnson was not in a bunker but in the sort of bad lie you can often get on links.

"How many times on a links do we get lies on broken, sandy ground which is clearly not a bunker? When the PGA administrators encountered situations similar to those you would find on a proper links course, they made a special rule to cover them. And they were wrong, because there were too many vagaries. I imagine more than one caddie grounded his bag on some bare sand last week. And remember, if we apply the PGA's ruling to the letter, the area of sand didn't have to be bigger than a few square inches."

Branigan concluded: "Why they didn't simply state that all bunkers inside the ropes were hazards and that all other sandy areas were waste ground, simply beggars belief. Perhaps the real problem is that your average American, not being familiar with natural linksland, doesn't know the difference between a bunker and broken ground."

Sunday Independent

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