Sunday 25 March 2018

High fliers gear up for aerial assault

Tighter pin positions for Open will suit Rory McIlroy's aggressive ball flight at Royal Troon

Rory McIlroy is targeting a second Claret Jug and his game should match up well with the course at Royal Troon. Photo: Brian Lawless
Rory McIlroy is targeting a second Claret Jug and his game should match up well with the course at Royal Troon. Photo: Brian Lawless

Dermot Gilleece

Despite an image greatly enhanced by a recent decision to open its ancient doors to women, Royal Troon will continue to lack the raw beauty of Turnberry, the towering dunes of Birkdale, the stark severity of Carnoustie, the fairness of Muirfield and the reverence of St Andrews. Yet its unrelenting resistance will ensure a worthy challenge for the 145th Open Championship, which begins there on Thursday.

In the old tradition, Troon is essentially an out-and-back links familiar to Irish practitioners through celebrated stretches like Lahinch, Co Sligo and Royal Dublin. And when the prevailing south-westerly whips in from the Firth of Clyde, it can become a vicious monster, as was famously illustrated by the Amateur Home Internationals of 1952, when stranded fish were seen squirming on the fourth green.

Mighty deeds during the last decade guarantee a strong Irish presence in the persons of Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke - champions all. Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell will also be there through their world ranking and Paul Dunne, a hero at St Andrews last year, came through final qualifying. Further places are on offer through the final leaderboard of the Scottish Open, later today.

Strong Irish ties with the Ayrshire links were embellished by Alan Dunbar in his British Amateur triumph of 2012. Prior to that, there was the legacy of the 1973 Open, where Gene Sarazen holed a five-iron tee-shot for an ace at the 126-yard eighth, the Postage Stamp, with Fred Daly as his playing partner. And Daly was also a fascinated observer the following day when the 71-year-old American holed a bunker shot there for a birdie. So carding one-two, without the need of his putter.

At the venerable golfing age of 48, Christy O'Connor mounted his last serious Open challenge on that occasion in a share of seventh place with Lanny Wadkins and Bob Charles, 12 strokes behind the winner, Tom Weiskopf, who had declared on the eve of battle: "I don't like this course. I can't figure it out." But having been advised by an American friend to simply "go right out and kill it", Weiskopf proceeded to capture his only Major title, matching the record aggregate of 276 set by Arnold Palmer in 1962.

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Des Smyth was tied fourth there in 1982 when Tom Watson, by his own admission, "backed into the title" to become only the fifth player in history to win the British and US Opens in the same year. Seven years later, David Feherty carried Irish hopes, having been thrust into the limelight by early rounds of 71 and 67 en route to a share of sixth place behind Mark Calcavecchia.

That was when we first glimpsed the possibility of a career for the Ulsterman on the other side of the television camera. Having talked during media interviews about his liking for quirky Woody Allen monologues, he quoted, as an example, the memorable line: "I saw hope running towards the horizon with his arse on fire."

But we are about to witness a very different challenge from 1997, when Clarke was tied second behind Justin Leonard at Troon, and Harrington finished with a sparkling 67 to claim a share of fifth place. And from 2004, when Clarke was again the leading Irish finisher, this time tied 11th behind the unlikely champion, Todd Hamilton.

"The game has changed significantly over the 20 years I've been a professional," said Harrington, who will be appearing in a special Q&A golfing evening at Roganstown GC on Tuesday, July 19. And on the previous night at the same venue, as the first part of "Tour Life - An Inside View of Professional Golf" hosted by Tadhg Harrington, the eminent sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella will offer his thoughts on the game.

"Tighter pin positions tucked behind bunkers have become a feature of the Open, which calls for the adjustment of hitting the ball high into links greens," explained Harrington. "There's no other way of getting at the pins. That's the first big change. Links golf is now more about power hitting and high ball flight with spin, if you don't want to end up with 30- or 40-foot putts."

He went on: "On the first hole, for instance, you can be sure that at least one pin will be just over the left-hand trap, and on two other days, they may be tight to the front right. Hit a low approach shot and you're going to have a 30-foot putt, at best, on what's supposed to be a birdie hole." All of which is giving a fresh meaning to the club motto 'Tam Arte Quam Marte', meaning 'as much by skill as by strength'.

The other big change, according to the Open champion of 2007 and '08, is in the competitive attitude of the leading challengers.

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"There's an awful lot of guys these days with the ability to win," he said. "And they're really aggressive from the start, unlike years ago when you could afford to be patient and just hang in there, believing that the guy who was six-under after day one was going to come back to the field.

"Nowadays, the likelihood is that such a player will keep going forward. Which puts pressure on everybody. From a time when level-par was a good score on the first day of a Major, you're now in danger of being left behind. So, you've got to go for it right from the start, with the possible exception of the US Open.

"When I go back to golf courses that I played 20 or even 10 years ago, I find myself hitting the driver on holes where I used to lay up. Unless you're aggressive, you're not going to win. And unlike my early years on tour, you now have probably 20 players who can win. Okay, they no longer include Tiger (Woods), who was incredibly dominant. But there are still half a dozen guys whose A-games are exceptional, up there with Tiger's A-game."

Harrington concluded: "Today's young guys are taught to go for one big week and not to worry if they miss the cut the next week. It's vastly different from Troon '97, when I was very much in my own world, playing golf my way. If I was to judge that player from where I am now, it would be as someone with no real future; someone likely to have disappeared in another couple of months."

When I met with Arnold Palmer on the putting green of The K Club in late July 2001, it had been 39 years since he retained the title at Troon. Yet vivid memories remained, especially of the dramatic finish.

That was when a stampeding crowd, showing what was described as "a revolting disregard for stewards and police", closed in on the final pairing in which Palmer produced a stunning exhibition of golfing supremacy to crush the challenge of Kel Nagle by six strokes.

On reading reports of the chaos on the 72nd hole, one could only speculate as to the problems a certain young lad by the name of Ian Hay must have had, as he attempted to get close to the champion. His objective was to obtain the autograph of this amazing American, who had shot a record aggregate of 276.

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In the event, we adults have long since acknowledged the remarkable resourcefulness of children. And young Master Hay had the evidence, in a photograph published in the Glasgow Evening Citizen the following Monday.

Early in 1997, Palmer's countless admirers were stunned by the news that he had prostate cancer. A successful diagnosis by a specialist in the Mayo Clinic, however, led ultimately to surgery and what became a full recovery.

As it happened, the specialist, by then 35 years older, has a rather special photograph hanging in his rooms. "I got Arnie to sign the picture," said Dr Hay. "It's been wonderful being able to help my boyhood hero." By an astonishing turn of events, the great man's wonderful way with people had delivered a dividend he could never have imagined.

"I have an appointment with Ian in a couple of weeks back at the Mayo Clinic," said Palmer at The K Club. "When the cancer was diagnosed, my wife and daughter went there with me. That's when Ian became my quarterback, which is the term I use for him.

"If you go to a clinic it's nice to have a man who watches over everything you do. And as an internal medicine man, Ian knew the right people to treat my particular complaint. He then watched me being operated on and when I got out, he kept track of my progress with my local doctor. So I always say he's the best quarterback in the league."

Palmer concluded: "I like to think that part of why I've had so much good fortune in my life is because I talk to people. I find if you're nice to people, it always comes back to you, one way or another."

Meanwhile, the countless golfing casualties at Troon would readily think of it having the teeth of a rat-catcher and the temperament of a shrew. Bearing Harrington's observations in mind, however, it could hardly be better suited to the long, high ball-flight of McIlroy, who could be set for another Claret Jug after the misfortune of his damaged ankle 12 months ago.

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