Wednesday 13 December 2017

Home hero can't escape from glare of spotlight

This week's Irish Open at Carton House could be the perfect event for Rory McIlroy to regain some joy in his game

‘The prospect of McIlroy smiles in continuing summer sunshine would be the perfect follow-up to the record-breaking events of 12 months ago’
‘The prospect of McIlroy smiles in continuing summer sunshine would be the perfect follow-up to the record-breaking events of 12 months ago’

Dermot Gilleece

While the world's number two golfer was on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art doing his Rocky thing on the eve of the US Open, a respected American observer was heard to comment: "Rory has to decide whether he wants to be a great golfer or a celebrity. It's pretty hard to be both."

Ironically, McIlroy will be expected to fill both roles in his capacity as the top attraction in this week's Irish Open, which returns to the Montgomerie Course at Carton House, starting on Thursday. His success in the longer term, however, could require a change of attitude to the game.

Knowing the person who didn't wish to be publicly identified with that comment, I have no doubt he has the player's best interest at heart. Indeed it's impossible to find anybody who wishes McIlroy anything but good. Which is why this week is so important for him, if only in creating a sense of competitive well-being.

It's been a decidedly low-key season so far, with highlights limited to runner-up in the Texas Open and tied-eighth finishes in the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral and the Players Championship at Sawgrass. Notable disappointments included walking out of the Honda Classic, a missed cut in the BMW PGA at Wentworth, tied 57th in the Memorial, tied 25th in the US Masters and tied 41st last Sunday at Merion.

One imagines tournament golf being largely a joy for an ambitious 24-year-old, especially when he is financially secure for life. But if his Honda walk-off and a bent nine-iron at Merion are indicators of McIlroy's innermost feelings, then the pursuit of happiness through golf has taken him seriously off track. Which is a great pity.

Though they are very different individuals, it is still worth noting that he is now the same age as Tiger Woods was at the very peak of his powers in 2000, when no fewer than 10 international victories included three Majors, one of them a stunning 15-stroke triumph in the US Open at Pebble Beach.

Unless desperately deprived, most people are aware that during the moments they're slipping on a pair of shoes in the morning, they can decide the sort of day they're liable to have. So, it's to be hoped we'll see a happier, more involved McIlroy this week than was evident at Royal Portrush 12 months ago.

The tournament deserves nothing less, if only for the tremendous effort which has been invested in making it a success in the continued absence of a title sponsor. In this context, the response of Ireland's leading practitioners is admirable, with Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Shane Lowry joining McIlroy as the top home contenders.

Paul McGinley will also be there, as the first Irish Ryder Cup captain to compete in an Irish Open. His tournament well-being won't become clear, however, until tomorrow when he competes over his home course, Sunningdale, in final qualifying for next month's Open Championship at Muirfield.

"I had to withdraw from the BMW International Open in Germany because of a strain in my lower back," he said. "The truth is that I've played very little competitive golf this year, only three tournaments since the end of January. So 36 holes at Sunningdale offers an ideal opportunity of sharpening my game for Carton. It's always a real pleasure to play the Irish Open and I'm 90 per cent sure I'm going to be OK."

As it happens, McGinley has not qualified for the Open Championship since 2009, when he was tied 43rd behind Stewart Cink at Turnberry. That particular occasion is probably best remembered for the remarkable performance by Tom Watson, who went heartbreakingly close to bringing off a fairytale outcome. And irrespective of his Sunningdale performance, McGinley is already committed to being at Muirfield.

"I've arranged to meet Watson for dinner there, on the Monday or Tuesday of Open week," he said. "It will be our first formal get-together as Ryder Cup captains and I'm really looking forward to it. I like what I know of the man. He's mentally tough, but a straight-talker. It should be an interesting evening."

A measure of McGinley's rustiness is that he has broken 70 only once in 16 competitive rounds so far this year. That was a 68 in the final round of the Ballentine's Championship in April, when he was tied 31st. Since then, he was tied 50th in his last event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

Against this background, you could sense his anxiety to get the old sharpness back. "I've made a special effort to put myself ahead of the game with my Ryder Cup duties," he said. "This has involved mainly PR work for the Tour. With no team in place as yet, I'm effectively the face of the Ryder Cup as far as the commercial side of things is concerned. There has also been work behind the scenes relating to uniforms, waterproofs, golf bags, the team-room and the players' bedrooms. All that kind of stuff.

"Those recent commitments should allow me time to play quite a bit over the next three months and become competitive once more. And hopefully it will all start with the Irish Open, though I'm a realist. I'm aware it takes time to regain the sort of sharpness which can turn three shots into two."

Then, putting his Ryder Cup hat back on, he went on to express delight at the overall lift to European spirits provided by Justin Rose's victory in the US Open last Sunday.

"I believe we saw the making of that win in Justin's Ryder Cup performance at Medinah, where he played a hero's role," said McGinley. "I don't think it's a coincidence that he moved up to the next level less than nine months later. Now, we could see him having the same influence on fellow countrymen like Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald that Pádraig had on the Irish players with his Majors."

Meanwhile, Carton will have an admirably strong field overall, notwithstanding the choices that are available to successful players these days. Apart from Harrington and Lowry, the field includes Jamie Donaldson, who won so impressively last year, and other former champions in Simon Dyson, Ross Fisher, Richard Finch, Stephen Dodd, Thomas Bjorn, Brett Rumford, Michael Campbell, Soren Hansen and Patrik Sjoland. Jose-Maria Olazabal, the 1990 champion, will also be in action.

In fact, it speaks volumes for the quality of the tournament that every winner since 2000 will be there, with one notable exception. Colin Montgomerie (winner in 1996, 1997 and 2001) celebrates his 50th birthday today and will be making his US Champions Tour debut this week in the Constellation Senior Players Championship in Pittsburgh.

For challengers such as Harrington, Donaldson, Paul Lawrie, McIlroy, Paul Casey, David Howell and Simon Khan, a stretch measuring 7,301 yards with generous fairways and moderately-paced greens will represent quite a contrast to their final-day torment at Merion. This, of course, assumes we eventually get the sort of weather the championship is long overdue.

Indeed the prospect of McIlroy smiles in continuing summer sunshine would be the perfect follow-up to the record-breaking events of 12 months ago.

Irish Independent

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