Saturday 16 December 2017

McIlroy has good cause to keep on running

Charity drive sees World No 1 fired up to succeed against big names on home turf

Rory McIlroy running between the gorse bushes during yesterday’s Pro Am event prior to today’s first round of the Irish Open at Royal County Down
Rory McIlroy running between the gorse bushes during yesterday’s Pro Am event prior to today’s first round of the Irish Open at Royal County Down
Shane Lowry hits an approach to the 12th green at Royal County Down
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Rory McIlroy recalled the last time he competed at Royal County Down and how it all ended in disappointment and frustration.

The occasion was the 2007 Walker Cup match between Britain and Ireland and the USA, the result was an American win, and the then 18-year-old prodigy was left to regret wasting two days playing amateur golf when he could have turned professional earlier that year.

Hindsight and experience have changed his mind. Eight momentous years have ensued during which the kid from Holywood, Co Down has stormed the world of professional golf and claimed his place at the summit as world No 1.

Money? Beyond his wildest dreams. Life experience? Bagfuls of that too, including the end of two relationships, one of which he ended on the cusp of setting a wedding date.

There is, however, one key similarity between the McIlroy of 2007 and the honed and toned version of 2015 - he ain't getting paid to play this week.

The decision was voluntary and all bound up with the reason the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open has changed from a painful inconvenience to an opportunity for giving to those less fortunate.

It's all about the difference between 'motives' and 'motivation.'

Motivation is usually concerned with mining the best of yourself for ultimately selfish rewards of personal achievement.

McIlroy's motives this week are totally altruistic. His charitable foundation supports a wonderful centre for cancer-afflicted families situated near Royal County Down, and by hurling himself in at the deep end as tournament host, he can make hundreds of thousands, if not a seven-figure sum for the Daisy Lodge centre.

Everyone's a winner, particularly the Irish Open as a brand, the post-Troubles Northern Ireland tourism product, Royal County Down, and, hopefully, the 80,000 fans who have bought their tickets to witness a world-class field performing on a notoriously difficult golf course.

Formidable

Hence McIlroy's decision to waive any prize money he makes over the next few days.

The ideal scenario is that he wins and donates the €416,666 first prize money to Daisy Lodge.

The problem is that a field containing Major winners such as Ernie Els, Pádraig Harrington, Martin Kaymer, and Graeme McDowell, plus a host of international talent including Rickie Fowler, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez, offers formidable opposition.

Time first for McIlroy to recollect his emotions as he departed RCD after that September 2007 Walker Cup match.

"There was an after-tournament dinner/party where everyone was supposed to get together but I was heading off to the Oxfordshire Golf Club to compete in the first stage of Q-School, so my emotions turned straight away to trying to get my Tour card.

"At that time, not being a part of a winning team, I was probably driving out of here thinking, 'Why did I stay amateur for two days of golf?'

"But looking back at it, it was one of the best experiences I had. And not just in terms of the golf, but the people that you meet, and the friendships you make, and the friendships you keep.

"It's something that you don't appreciate then. But whenever you move on a few years, that stuff is just as important," said McIlroy.

Some of those friendships from 'O7, particularly with US Ryder Cup player Rickie Fowler, paid off when McIlroy came calling to assemble the field for this Irish Open.

He freely admitted that this tournament was one of his least favourites, not least because of his poor record in the event.

Who would have thought that taking a lead role in the Open could alter McIlroy's perspective so dramatically? Again, it had to be something beyond his own interests, but it has worked wonders so far.

"The Irish Open for me for the last few years was becoming a bit of a ... I don't want to say a pain, but it didn't quite fit in the schedule, or I just wasn't enjoying it as much as I could.

"And then The European Tour approached us about getting involved, and we thought it was a perfect way to really kick-start the Foundation and really start to help other people because of who I am and what I do.

"So honestly, what I want to get out of it this year is just to raise a lot of money for the Foundation for the cancer fund.

"If I play well, and if I do well in the tournament, then all the money that I earn is going to go towards that as well.

"So I'm not really playing for myself this week. I'm playing for a lot of other people and it gives me an incentive to go out there and enjoy it and try to play well," he said.

The course and the elements will have a huge bearing on how the tournament evolves on this world-renowned seaside golfing venue which has developed its own distinct personality since Old Tom Morris drafted the design for the 18 holes in July 1889.

Royal County Down is like a stern matriarch who brooks no challenge to her authority, and who, if a cheeky young stripling should dare to run into the parlour with muddy shoes on, will take immediate retribution.

Best to adopt a meek and humble approach and know your place.

Therein lies the secret to a fruitful relationship between this golf course and its gentleman callers.

Kevan Whitson, the club professional who has enjoyed 24 years serving the needs of the members and thousands of visitors from all over the globe, confirms that view.

"This course does not take kindly to being challenged. She will defend herself and will bite back."

Given the power of the wind last evening and the afternoon rain with more forecast, the golfers could have all the vim and vigour beaten out of them in the first two days alone, making it more a test of survival than a birdie-fest.

McIlroy is ready. "It's a tough course. And I think it will really reward a smart golfer. It's really like a game of chess out here.

"You've just got to play your positions, and plot your way along. That's what it will reward," he said.

The main man tees off alongside Martin Kaymer and Fowler. Selection: Rory McIlroy. NB: Graeme McDowell. EW: David Howell.

Irish Independent

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