Monday 18 December 2017

Irish golf on a high after McIlroy return and Lowry success

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the 6th hole during the third round of the 2015 PGA Championship golf tournament at Whistling Straits. Photo: Brian Spurlock
Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the 6th hole during the third round of the 2015 PGA Championship golf tournament at Whistling Straits. Photo: Brian Spurlock
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

RORY McIlroy is the last man standing of our bunch of five starters in the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, but this has still been a good week for Irish golf.

We can sometimes forget that the country’s golfing population is tiny compared with the USA and the UK.

Since 2007, when Padraig Harrington broke a 40 year old hoodoo by winning the British Open, Irish golf has rampantly over-achieved relative to the tiny pool of Tour professionals that operate on all circuits, from PGA and European Tour down to the EuroPro Tour.

In that context, the feel-good factor was at the upper end of the spectrum over the last seven days.

The return of McIlroy to the competitive arena, a comeback which had looked unlikely given the six to eight weeks prognosis for his ankle ligament tear, has been solid and genuine.

Only a lack of competitive sharpness caused him to start Saturday’s third round on just two under par, but watching McIlroy and Jordan Spieth in the same three-ball for the first 36 holes whetted the appetite for more of the same, please, preferably on the back nine of Majors to come over the next few years.

Shane Lowry floated into Whistling Straits still on a high from a dramatic victory in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone last week-end.

He was surprised and humbled by the outpouring of congratulations that cascaded on him from all sources, including friends, family, Irish fans he has never met, and fellow professionals.

Lowry’s personality has much to do with that, although we Irish are genuinely great at celebrating our sports heroes and heroines when they triumph on the international stage.

The man from Clara, County Offaly, remains well grounded and is essentially an ordinary guy who makes his living doing an extraordinary job.

“I don't feel any different to be honest. The crowds definitely know me more anyway. You'd get good recognition this week, but that's only because I won last week. But I'm the same. I'm looking forward to getting home and doing all my usual stuff,” he said.

Some of the ‘usual stuff’ includes the pleasure of relaxing at the family home in Clara enjoying a nice cup of tea brewed by his mother Bridget, a visit to the All-Ireland hurling final, and attending the Ireland v Canada World Cup rugby game.

Lowry, 28, as Padraig Harrington noted, has taken the road less travelled in making his mark on the world of golf.

Most players, Harrington included, emerge from the ranks of amateur golf and take time to get accustomed to the rigours of playing for pay week in, week out.

Lowry is not that player.

He bagged a top European Tour title, the 2009 Irish Open at County Louth as an amateur before he had even turned pro.

He had to wait until 2012 for his next tournament victory in the Portugal Masters, his maiden victory as a full-time Tour player.

Another three years has elapsed but now Lowry’s career has stepped up a notch with that Bridgestone victory.

Harrington said he was thrilled to see Lowry win the Bridgestone.

“If you can win a world event, you can win a major.

“He is unlucky that it is not a Major, because the standard of the golf course, the standard of the field, is every bit the same.

“Yes, he is capable of doing it. You would still think in the natural progression of things he will lose a couple before he goes and wins one, but Shane has never done that.

“It hasn’t bothered him in the past, so I wouldn’t be living by that rule, and to be honest very few people in golf live by  any rule now.

“They take their chances, Shane took it last week,” said Harrington.

Despite missing the cut at Whistling Straits by just one shot after rounds of 78,69, three over par, the feel-good factor surrounding Lowry will last quite a while.

He has six weeks to assimilate the significance of Firestone before resuming on Tour, starting with the Dunhill Links on October 1-4.

McIlroy was in thrilling form in early May when he won two big tournaments, the WGC-Cadillac Match Play and the Wells Fargo Championship.

His decision to play five weeks in a row, a period that included those PGA Tour wins, meant the tank was pretty much empty by the time of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, which was disappointing considering he was on home ground at Royal County Down.

Nobody could seriously complain, however. McIlroy’s Foundation involvement in the Irish Open ensured the tournament could boast its best field in almost two decades.

He had to wait until the last day at the US Open in Chambers Bay to gun the accelerator.

A 66 in round four was only good enough for tied-9, and after that, the ATFL ligament rupture he suffered on July 4 became the story around McIlroy.

Now he has resumed, and provided this week does not cause any setback to the ankle’s improvement, we can look forward to more exciting golf from Rory.

Padraig Harrington was only one shot away from playing the week-end in the PGA.

He goes on holiday from Monday knowing that his right knee is a problem, but one he expects to live with until the completion of his seven tournament schedule to the end of the season.

He will be 44 on August 31, is still competitive and his desire to win is as high as ever.

Graeme McDowell, 36, was en route to his home in Lake Nona, Florida, within an hour of signing for 73, 76 (5 over par) via executive jet with Ian Poulter.

McDowell has not been firing on all cylinders so far, but he has time to turn this season around.

Darren Clarke, 47 on Friday, the day he shot 81 to blow out of Whistling Straits, has not found the answers yet to making the most of birdie opportunities and avoiding mistakes.

The Ryder Cup captaincy for the 2016 match presents a welcome challenge for Clarke who is not enjoying his golf right now.

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