Sport Golf

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Heavyweights sign up to McIlroy's fan club

Rory McIlroy, making his first appearance in Europe since winning on the US Tour, will be hoping to master Wentworth's new 18th hole in the PGA Championship. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy, making his first appearance in Europe since winning on the US Tour, will be hoping to master Wentworth's new 18th hole in the PGA Championship. Photo: Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

SEVE ballesteros was first to write. Then letters from Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer flopped onto Rory McIlroy's doormat last Thursday.

With 30 Major titles between them, these living legends have seen and done it all in golf, but it's a measure of McIlroy's mesmeric win at Quail Hollow that it inspired all three to put pen to paper.

Their tributes and the excitement McIlroy has been generating in the crowded galleries as he practised for today's first round of the BMW PGA Championship offer further endorsement of something we Irish have known all along -- there's something truly special about McIlroy.

Nicklaus put it in a nutshell. "We'd lunch earlier in the year at West Palm Beach and he'd told me to be patient," McIlroy said. "So he wrote: 'I told you to be patient but that was just outrageous!'

"I'd only briefly met Arnold on 13 at Augusta this year. I hit a nice 5-iron in front of him onto the green. His letter said 'congratulations again and looking forward to seeing you at Bay Hill next year'," he recalled, adding with a smile: "So I'll have to play there.


"You know, it's fantastic to be able to spend time with men of their stature. I suppose I'm in a very privileged position and I really appreciate them taking an interest in my career.

"There've been a lot of really nice letters. I'm grateful for them all. They made me realise how special that win in Quail Hollow was," added McIlroy, who was particularly touched Ballesteros took time to write, considering his ongoing battle with cancer after four operations to excise a brain tumour.

"It's incredible, he's been going through a very difficult time. Hopefully, we'll see Seve at The Open," said McIlroy, referring to the Spaniard's determination to tee it up in the Open Champions' Challenge at St Andrews on the eve of this year's tournament.

McIlroy and girlfriend Holly plan to frame the letters with the 18th flag from Quail Hollow and hang it "in my downstairs bathroom, so when people go in there, they can see what I've done," the youngster explained, quelling the snickers of a few old 'Carry On' movie buffs in the Wentworth hack pack with a reproachful: "Not in that way!

"Holly and I agreed the downstairs bathroom area would be a great place for pictures of my wins, flags and letters and messages and so on," he went on. "That'll be my trophy room."

Yet if McIlroy fulfils the potential shown at Quail Hollow, when he posted rounds of 66 and 62 to beat Phil Mickelson by four strokes, this 'Throne Room' should be far too small to accommodate his victory spoils.

Though a 12/1 third favourite behind World No 3 Lee Westwood (10/1) and Ernie Els (11/1), who repeatedly had to slug it out with Wentworth owner Richard Caring during the recent £8m-plus redesign of The West Course, McIlroy won't be beaten this week if he strikes the ball as well as in practice.

For a change at the BMW PGA, an event which has produced more than its share of unlikely winners, the 'improvements' to Wentworth, especially its once notorious greens, should make this week's showpiece more predictable.

So extensive are the changes, defending champion Paul Casey ruefully admitted: "I'm not sure my local knowledge will be much use to me anymore."

However, Els has achieved his primary objective by upgrading 'The Burma Road' to a championship course, which will offer the ultimate challenge to the game's elite (especially when its greens bed in and harden in a couple of years).

There are a few foibles. Els had to talk the owner out of placing a big lake in front of the final green but the compromise still could throw a damper on one of the most exciting finishing par-fives on Tour.

For sure, the hole looks dramatic, with a brook gurgling past the front and down the left of a narrow elevated putting surface, which is guarded to the right by cavernous bunkers.

Yet with absolutely no bail-out and only a massive, inch-perfect drive likely to get anyone within 230 yards of the front of this forbidding target, the majority will lay up. This in turn will reduce the need to play a roaring fade around the dog leg off the tee, making the simple bunt into mid-fairway the most prudent option.

The general belief here is that it's going to be difficult to hold that green with a club of any lower loft than a 5-iron and very few can hit the tee shots far enough to get within that range; guys like McIlroy, Casey, Angel Cabrera, Ross Fisher and Alvaro Quiros, if he keeps it straight, are obvious exceptions.

Meanwhile, the massive elevation of the new 17th green suggests a double-decker bus is missing from one of London's depots. With a huge depression to the right of the putting surface and a dangerous new swale on the left, balance of risk against reward also has been tipped a little too far at this par-five.

It's a compliment to Padraig Harrington's influence on Tour that all 18 greens at Wentworth were relaid to USGA standards. Harrington (Ian Poulter too) knocked the BMW PGA Championship off his schedule due to the unpredictable old putting surfaces here.

For all the new undulations, putting on Colonial Bent will once again allow guys like Harrington, Westwood and Poulter trust their putting stroke, making the Dubliner, one of 11 Irish playing this week, look especially threatening.

Yet as Seve, Arnie and The Golden Bear will attest, there's something special about McIlroy, and the new Wentworth can help him prove it.

BMW PGA Championship,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 10.0/3.0

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport