Monday 18 December 2017

McIlroy keeps taking the rough with the smooth

Holywood hero insists life is good despite constant global scrutiny and frustration over his form slump

Rory McIlroy plays out of the rough during the Irish Open Pro-Am at Carton House yesterday
Rory McIlroy plays out of the rough during the Irish Open Pro-Am at Carton House yesterday

Karl MacGinty

RORY McILROY'S approach was announced by the excited yelps and cries of children desperate for his glove, golf ball, autograph or any souvenir they could cadge.

Those of us old and sad enough recalled the high-pitched squeals which used greet The Beatles.

For all these kids care, McIlroy could have bitten a chunk out of his unfortunate nine-iron on the back nine at the US Open last Sunday week and gone skinny-dipping in the stream which courses down the right-hand side of the 11th green at Merion.

And all their mums and dads want to see over the next four days is the most exciting Irish sports star of his generation burst free of his recent form slump and bring a flavour of his world-conquering feats at Congressional and Kiawah Island to the Montgomerie Course at Carton.

The Irish Open, you see, is ready to give itself up to 'Rory-Mania'. The home crowd is ready to forgive and forget the club-bending and throwing which sullied the 24-year-old's final round at Merion and illustrated the intensity of McIlroy's frustration with his form.

The player himself doesn't appear too troubled by these unwholesome incidents. "Yeah, the club throw," he recalled yesterday. "I hit the fairway on the fifth hole (at Merion) and had to play it left-handed. That was a bit ... I mean, it was unlucky; it was frustration, whatever you want to call it.

FRUSTRATION

"And then on 11, I hit my tee-shot in the water, took a drop and hit my third shot in the water. Yeah, obviously it was just frustration. I guess the US Open, as well, it's a course where you feel like you can do well and can shoot a score but it just doesn't allow you.

"Yeah, I just got frustrated. Definitely wasn't the right thing to do. I wouldn't recommend anyone watching on TV or any kids to start throwing their clubs or bending their nine-irons," he mused. "But the nine-iron is intact and got a new shaft this week and is ready to go."

Like its owner, the club is not the least bit bent out of shape.

When someone helpfully suggested he wouldn't be human if he didn't occasionally give in to frustration, McIlroy eagerly took up the baton, saying: "No, of course not. I guess there are other ways to show disappointment. Taking it out on your golf clubs probably isn't the right way to do it.

"Of course everybody is going to get frustrated or angry or disappointed in a bad shot and obviously I'm no different. Yeah, it doesn't set a good example, I guess."

McIlroy did not so eagerly embrace the suggestion by Padraig Harrington on Tuesday that he's inevitably going to have a career of incredible highs, interspersed with the occasional trough, adding: "If he embraces that, I think there'll be less of the lows and more of the consistent highs.

"You want a little bit of the erratic genius in your game, having the peaks and troughs and hopefully it all evens out over time," said Harrington. "It's peculiar to golf. You want consistency in your goalkeeper or defender in football but not when you're playing against 156 guys in a golf tournament because you've got to be special to win."

As ever, McIlroy was not for turning. He agreed that consistency was overrated in golf, saying: "It's much better to win and to be up-and-down in that way. I definitely wouldn't want to finish 30th every week.

"Yet I know I can play consistently at a high level," McIlroy insisted, adding emphatically: "I know that. It's just a matter of bringing it out of myself. I went through periods where I finished in the top five in 10 or 12 events and that's the sort of golf I want to get back to.

"Of course I would rather win, miss five cuts and win again rather than finish 30th in every event. But I think I've got the game and I'm a good enough player to give myself chances to win week in, week out."

As his fellow Major champions Harrington and Graeme McDowell readily concede, McIlroy could suddenly click back into top gear on the Monty course today ... and if he does, a run of less than spectacular performances in his six Irish Opens to date inevitably will come to a spectacular conclusion next Sunday.

It's remarkable to look back to his first appearance at his national open at Carton in 2005, when McIlroy, a 16-year-old amateur fresh from a remarkable second successive victory at the West of Ireland, was delighted to outscore much of the field, including course designer Colin Montgomerie, with a phenomenal first-round 71. The youngster followed up with an 81 in freezing wind and rain the following day to miss the cut ... You see, his reputation for performing poorly in foul weather is deeply rooted.

With his shock of curly hair and cherubic face, McIlroy in 2005 didn't look a whole lot different from many of the kids chanting for his autograph yesterday.

"Life has changed a little bit since then," he recalled. "I remember getting kicked out of bars after missing the cut that Friday because I wasn't old enough to drink."

McDowell (33) wondered aloud how McIlroy manages to survive under the searing light of constant global scrutiny, saying: "I can't imagine what Rory has gone through this year.

"It's hard to imagine he could ratchet up the level from last year when what he was doing on the golf course was so phenomenal.

"His profile definitely has notched up and he's now one of the most recognised athletes in the world, tossed in there with the Tigers, Federers, the Nadals and all of these amazing Nike athletes we read about week in, week out.

"It's a lot to deal with for a young lad from Northern Ireland, who at the end of the day is just a normal kid. This is not about the golf, it's about the off-course life he has and he seems to have taken it in his stride.

"I can't really relate to who he is or what he is. He's on another level from me but he's acclimatised to it incredibly well," added the Portrush native.

"Having played with him on Thursday and Friday at Wentworth, I think Rory's game is very close to being back to where it was. I'm sure it won't be long before we see him back at his best."

McIlroy seemed perfectly content with the life he shares with Caroline Wozniacki. "I'm very happy with everything. Right now, I wouldn't want it any other way," said the Ulsterman.

CONSOLE

Mind you, he needed to console the Danish star last night following her straight-sets defeat to Czech Petra Setkovska in the Women's singles second round at Wimbledon.

McIlroy, who got on famously with former Chelsea and Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko during yesterday's Pro-Am, admitted afterwards he still has an issue to resolve in his swing.

So it's by no means certain that he'll win this tournament; emerge best of the 27-strong Irish contingent at Carton or even outperform his two playing companions in the first round, Thomas Bjorn, who prevailed on the weather-blitzed Montgomerie in 2006, or home course hero Shane Lowry.

Though four recent Irish Major champions feature prominently in the field, Clara native Lowry has the golf game, the form (judging by last Sunday's 65 in Munich) and the temperament to embrace this uniquely Irish occasion more heartily than McIlroy.

It was wonderful, for example, to see Lowry donning a blindfold on 17 during yesterday's Pro-Am and hitting chips onto the green, all the time exchanging banter with the fans.

Just as he did at Baltray in 2009, when he pulled off a stunning victory as an amateur at the Irish Open, Lowry looked so much at home!

Selections: 1 Shane Lowry, 2 Graeme McDowell, 3 Rory McIlroy, 4 Paul Casey. Long shot: Peter Uihlein.

Top amateur: Kevin Phelan.

Irish Open,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 10.0/3.0

Irish Independent

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