Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Players using every trick in the book to cheat the elements at Irish Open

Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy shelters from rain and wind on the 6th tee on the second day of the Irish Open at the Royal County Down Golf Club
Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy shelters from rain and wind on the 6th tee on the second day of the Irish Open at the Royal County Down Golf Club

Dermot Gilleece

When confronted with overly receptive greens, an American caddie recently had the bright idea of rubbing mud into the grooves of his man’s wedges, so as to eliminate excessive backspin.

It could have been a highly rewarding device as challengers attempted to cope with rain-soaked surfaces at Royal Co Down.

Observing mixed fortunes in today’s second round, lent rich emphasis to the half-way assessment of Padraig Harrington, whose rise to the pinnacle of competitive achievement was built largely around the short game. “Unlike courses like Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale (where he won back-to-back Open Championships), the real test here is around the greens,” he said.

“Miss the fairway and you have a problem on very few holes. You can avoid the bunkers and get it up and around the green and if you have a short game, you’re fine.”

In this context, he felt you didn’t have to do that much chipping, in that it was possible to use the putter from off the green.  But pitching was clearly a different matter.

This is the first time in recent decades that a renowned links has been tested by some of the world’s leading players. Respectfully, one could discount the Senior British Open stagings of 2000 and 2001, not least for the fact that conditions were ideal and the overall length of the course was reduced by about 500 yards.

Christy O’Connor Jnr, who was defending the title in 2000, later donned his golf-course architect’s hat when commenting: “It’s a magnificent location for a golf course in that the wind has to be judged perfectly.  Then there’s the 18th which is one of the best finishing holes in golf, with its string of bunkers down the right.”

O’Connor’s right. I counted six sevens there by mid-afternoon on a 548-yard hole which would appear to be a handle proposition on paper. That’s before it sets about playing visual games with its challengers.

Which, on the evidence so far, brings me to the greatest examination of all, as conceived by the great Bobby Jones. “Golf,” he once observed, “is played on a course measuring five and a half inches – the distance between your two ears.”

Dodging the showers at Royal Co Down today it was fascinating to watch the antics of caddies and players battling to cheat the elements as best they could. You could imagine players wondering if this was going to be a short, passing shower or was it time for the wet-gear. While caddies employed well-tried routines to keep their master’s equipment dry.

Hit a few bad shots leading to successive bogeys, and exasperation is going to be rising inexorably towards the surface. And when the strain becomes excessive, thoughts turn to next week’s Nordea Masters in Malmo, Sweden.

All of these factors serve to create a searching examination of body and soul, in which a famously tough golf course is only part of the problem.

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