Sunday 18 February 2018

‘It’s just 40-30 with Rory serving’

Donald gunning for return to top of the world

Rory McIlroy
keeps an eye on
Graeme McDowell
during practice in
Florida yesterday
Rory McIlroy keeps an eye on Graeme McDowell during practice in Florida yesterday

William S Callahan

RORY McILROY and Luke Donald have swapped the mantle of golf's No 1 ranking five times in the past 10 weeks -- and 'Team Donald' have warned the Ulsterman not to get too settled at the top of the world.

McIlroy leapfrogged Donald back into pole position last Sunday by reaching the play-off at Quail Hollow, and the 23-year-old is a clear favourite with the bookies to take the $9.5m Players Championship at Sawgrass.

McIlroy is a more formidable and seasoned competitor now than in 2009 and 2010, when he missed the cut at The Players after struggling to cope with the strategic challenge posed by the Stadium Course, especially off the tee.

The frustration he endured on both occasions played at least some part in his decision not to play at Sawgrass last year.

Today McIlroy, the reigning US Open champion, will tee it up in the first round of the PGA Tour's showpiece confident in his ability to take a more pragmatic route around Pete Dye's most famous creation.

He will carry a trusty old two-iron instead of the usual five-wood to help him achieve this end -- but Donald needs to make no adjustments for Sawgrass. Indeed, the Englishman has never appeared more suited to the challenge of golf's so-called 'Fifth Major'.

Donald's caddie, John McLaren, acknowledged his man is made for the Players Championship layout. "I told Luke that for us it doesn't get much better than this," he said.

Since it switched to May from March -- and away from the rains -- Sawgrass' emphasis is plainly not on length.

"There's no real advantage to the bombers who hit 330 yards," said Donald. "Short game is important around here and in that respect, when I'm on, I feel that's a big tick in my box."

That is the basis for McLaren's confidence in Donald's ability to ease past McIlroy and back to the top next Sunday. "It's fun and we've been laughing at it," McLaren smiled. "Let's just say it's 40-30 at the moment with Rory serving." The glint in Donald's eye, however, suggested he fancies a break point.

The 34-year-old Englishman certainly rates The Players Championship as second only to the Majors.

"I would have to put this above the WGC Matchplay which I won, just because of the strength of the field," said Donald, who won the European Tour's blue ribband, the BMW PGA at Wentworth, last May.

"This is just a small step down from the majors. The PGA at Wentworth is a great tournament and I wish it attracted more Americans."

Donald suspects McIlroy's decision to skip Sawgrass last year might also "have been because of politics".

He added: "Maybe he and Lee (Westwood) were making a stand saying, 'well, if you're not playing Wentworth, we're not playing The Players'. I did find it surprising."

PUZZLED

Westwood has heard quite enough criticism. "I'm a little bit puzzled why people are still asking that," he said. "I don't see everybody playing this year. The Masters champion isn't playing. But I've hardly heard that mentioned."

Bubba Watson has elected to remain at home to spend time with his family. Yet the home challenge remains considerable, not least because of Rickie Fowler's win on Sunday.

There has been something of US resurgence, with 16 of 20 home winners on the PGA Tour so far this season. Still, the bookmakers have McIlroy just ahead of Donald and Westwood at the top of the market, eclipsing iconic Americans like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Indeed, Woods is 11/4 with Ladbrokes to miss the cut -- after last week's flop in Charlotte that may seem generous.

Not, however, as seemingly charitable as the 14/1 on offer for Westwood, who flew through with a 66 last Sunday to take fifth at the Wells Fargo. "I've never seen Lee play so well," coach Pete Cowen said. "And he knows it, too."

Westwood also knows that the record-books are stacked up against him and Donald. In 37 Players Championships, the best England can boast is a second placing for Ian Poulter two years ago.

Before its move to May in 2007, Padraig Harrington would always have been fancied at The Players following successive second-place finishes in '03 and '04 -- yet he has missed the cut in three of five years since the switch.

Instead, Graeme McDowell must be rated Ireland's strongest contender this week following his command performance for the first 53 holes last year.

A stroke of misfortune led to double-bogey on 18 on Sunday morning, knocking the wind out of the Portrush man for that afternoon's final round.

Meanwhile, investment management company Brewin Dolphin have become an official sponsor for next month's Irish Open at Royal Portrush.

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