Thursday 14 November 2019

Rolling out Royal welcome

Rory McIlroy's role as host should ensure a spectacular Irish Open

‘Though relatively short by modern standards at 7,186 yards, it would be difficult to imagine a championship layout in a more beautiful setting’ Photo: Matt Browne
‘Though relatively short by modern standards at 7,186 yards, it would be difficult to imagine a championship layout in a more beautiful setting’ Photo: Matt Browne
A map of Royal County Down
'An appearance on the syndicated Dan Patrick Show, emphasised the extent to which golf’s world No 1 is being embraced as a leading sporting figure in the US'

Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy has been engaging in some mischievous banter ahead of what promises to be another triumph north of the border for the €2.5m Irish Open, now under the Dubai Duty Free banner. Led along by a decidedly roguish interviewer on a popular US radio station last week, McIlroy agreed that in his part of this island, "we're definitely more refined".

An appearance on the syndicated Dan Patrick Show, emphasised the extent to which golf's world No 1 is being embraced as a leading sporting figure in the US. It also explains the far-reaching impact he has had in spearheading the national championship's return to Royal Co Down for the first time since 1939.

His missed-cut at Wentworth can be seen as a blessing in disguise, given a very demanding, recent schedule. And the withdrawal of world number 15, Patrick Reed, is no more than an irritant against the background of a high-quality field, sparkling with talent from the four corners of the globe.

Then there's the venue. "Royal Co Down," Tom Watson once observed, "is a pure links in the truest sense of the word. It is a tremendous test of golf, where the outward half especially is as fine a nine holes as I have ever played." As for its well-documented blindness off the tee, we need only consider the words of Tommy Armour who famously remarked: "There is no such thing as a blind shot to anyone with a memory."

Though relatively short by modern standards at 7,186 yards, it would be difficult to imagine a championship layout in a more beautiful setting. And the three finishing holes have been significantly updated in recent years, while the 483-yard ninth is no longer a par five which it was when Jimmy Bruen set a course-record 66, 76 years ago.

For Rickie Fowler, recent winner of the Players Championship, it will reawaken warm memories of a Walker Cup appearance in 2007, when he took three points out of four in a narrow victory for the visiting Americans. That was when McIlroy, as the star of the home side, also bade farewell to amateur ranks after beating Billy Horschel by 4 and 2 in the top singles on the second day.

As one of Europe's finest links players of recent decades, 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke considers Royal Co Down to be "among the best second-shot golf courses in the world". And with a level of diplomacy which should serve him well as next year's Ryder Cup captain, he adds: "Comparing it with Portrush is like looking at two Picassos: both have great merit in their own right."

Portrush, which is now Clarke's home place, was the scene of a wonderful staging in 2012, when European records were set by a cumulative attendance of 112,280 over the four days. This was a staggering 32 per cent increase on what was considered to have been a successful event at Killarney the previous year.

It wasn't this, however, which prompted McIlroy's mocking sense of superiority. Nor the fact that this week's championship also promises to be a sell-out, albeit with a ceiling of 20,000 spectators per day. Improbably, it had to do with a recent visit by Pádraig Harrington to the Dan Patrick studio.

"Would you do us a favour," the host asked McIlroy. "We had Pádraig say thirty-third. And it's a bit of a thing when you have someone from Ireland say thirty-third. So, can you give us a thirty-third?"

Which brought the response: "I'll give you a thirty-third but it won't be the same as Pádraig's. He's from Dublin and they sort of struggle with their ths. [Loud laughter from Patrick]. Pádraig would say tirty-turd. I would actually pronounce the ths, which is the difference. I don't quite struggle with that."

"So, you're more refined then in Northern Ireland than they are in Dublin, is what you're saying?" Patrick suggested.

"Oh, we're definitely more refined," said McIlroy.

An ability to think on his feet was further in evidence when he was asked: "What do people say to you on the street?"

"I haven't been on the street yet (this week)," McIlroy replied.

And "when was the last time you bought a beer?" "Last time I bought a beer . . . eh . . . probably . . . last weekend," came the response after a lengthy pause.

Then: "If people want to play golf, are they allowed to have beers?"

"Of course they are. If you want to have a little bit of fun and make it more enjoyable. Of course."

"So we can wear plaid pants, and we can have cigars and drink beer?"

"The beer and cigars are fine, but I'd stay away from the plaid pants."

Especially revealing from a golfing perspective was the player's response when asked how he felt about seeing Jordan Spieth on the cover of Sports Illustrated. "He deserved to be on it. To win the Masters at 21 and to do it the way he did. It was a phenomenal performance that definitely inspired me. I didn't like not being in that position. I practised hard and I prepared as best I possibly could, and I just came up short. So, I'm really happy for Jordan.

"He's a great guy. I'm expecting more from him in the future but I know that I'm going to work hard to stay ahead of him, and try and beat him. But it was great to see; great for golf to see these younger guys coming up and coming through. More competition is good."

"So, Jordan Spieth can make you even greater, can he?"

"I definitely agree. You look at some other sports and some other rivalries. Take an individual sport like tennis. Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal), you know they made each other better. It would be great. Even Phil (Mickelson) made Tiger better. Yeah. It inspired me to see Jordan do what he did at Augusta. It inspired me to go out and maybe have a bit more edge, have a bit more intensity. And it was nice to pick up a couple of wins in my last three starts. But I'm sure that will stir Jordan up as well."

McIlroy generally maintains a pleasant demeanour in public, but his many admirers could have little awareness of a wickedly funny side to his character.

Though it is difficult to measure the full impact of the Rory Foundation as hosts for the championship, it has been considerable. European Tour officials have been staggered by McIlroy's unstinting help in promoting the event.

And we can take it as more than coincidence that long-time absentees such as Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els are back in the field, quite apart from having Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, each of whom has been world No 1 in recent years.

Meanwhile, much has been made of events at Wentworth 12 months ago when the break-up with Caroline Wozniacki seemed to transform McIlroy's golfing fortunes. I take the view, however, that the Irish Open at Fota Island in late June was far more significant.

That was where an opening 74 caused him to miss the cut by a stroke and prompted some serious soul-searching as to his real commitment to his craft. As a consequence, we saw a very different competitor at Hoylake four weeks later. The upshot, of course, was back-to-back Major triumphs, with victory in the Bridgestone Invitational in between.

Bruen would have been viewed as the McIlroy of his day. And when assessing the 1939 Irish Open in which victory went to the Sunningdale professional Arthur Lees, the correspondent of the Sunday Express had no doubt about the star of the show. "At the risk of having a shower of controversy poured over my head, I make bold to say that Bruen was the best player in the field," wrote the distinguished English amateur Laddie Lucas.

Henry Longhurst thought so highly of Bruen that he rated him among the best six players in the world, amateur or professional. In the event, he stunned the game's leading commentators as a fresh-faced 19-year-old by carding an opening round of 66 containing 29 putts to lead by two strokes from the Royal Dublin professional Paddy Mahon.

On hearing the news, his mentor, Henry Cotton, sent a telegram which read: "Glad I am not there. Go on handing it out. Terrific stuff." Bruen then shot a second-round 74 to be one stroke clear of Lees at the halfway stage. And though the magic deserted the youngster in later rounds of 75 and 81, he still finished sixth overall to take the leading amateur award by no fewer than 10 shots from a promising Dubliner named Joe Carr.

Given all he has already done, it seems bordering on greedy to expect McIlroy to repeat the dominance of last week's victory at Quail Hollow, especially at the end of a punishing five-week stint on either side of the Atlantic. This week means so much to him, however, that nothing should surprise us.

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