Saturday 16 December 2017

Massive hitters add to McIlroy’s Major problems

Leona Maguire poses with the trophy after winning the Ladies British Open Amateur Championship. Photo by Richard Martin-Roberts/R&A/R&A via Getty Images
Leona Maguire poses with the trophy after winning the Ladies British Open Amateur Championship. Photo by Richard Martin-Roberts/R&A/R&A via Getty Images

Brian Keogh

The nice reporter from Korean television smiled beatifically at the bearded man from Portrush, set up her tripod and prepared to begin her inquisition.

Graeme McDowell, who had just missed the cut by four shots, wondered why on earth he was the subject of such interest.

"Do you know who I am?" McDowell said, grinning back through gritted teeth.

"Oh yes," said the lady. "So Graeme you won the US Open before..."

"Not this year."

"Well, nobody knows the future."

"I'm pretty sure I am not going to win this year," McDowell said.

With an average driving distance of 278 yards, it's no surprise that McDowell has fallen to 89th in the world and failed to contend in a Major for five years.

Wondering

But he isn't the only Major winner wondering what he has to do to get back to golf's top table.

A few hours earlier, Rory McIlroy had stood on the same spot and been asked how "hungry" he was to end his near three-year wait for that elusive fifth Major.

"Yeah, I'm hungry, but I'm not going to force it," he said, clearly irked.

Question McIlroy's desire and you will get short shrift - as the Australian former US PGA winner Steve Elkington, a Twitter troll of the highest order, discovered last Friday evening when he suggested that McIlroy was spoiled by his financial success and "bored" by the game.

McIlroy is certainly not bored but, midway through his 10th season as a professional, you could argue that he may already have passed the absolute zenith of his career.

We are now in an era when the gap between the game's top players and the man ranked 50th is slimmer than ever.

Even before last night's cavalry charge for the US Open, there have been no fewer than six successive first-time Major winners, starting with Jason Day in the 2015 US PGA Championship.

A quick glance at the driving distance statistics at Erin Hills revealed that no fewer than 50 players averaged over 300 yards from the tee on soft fairways.

Never mind Dustin Johnson or Jason Day, McIlroy now has to contend with an army of athletes who can easily handle a course that is close to 8,000 yards long, such as amateur Cameron Champ (averaging 338 yards), Kevin Dougherty (333.80 yards), Ryan Brehm (331.30), Tyler Light (328.10) or Trey Mullinax (325.70).

Add to that names like Brooks Koepka (323.50) or Justin Thomas (316.10) and it's clear that, if he's to justify his reported $100m TaylorMade deal, not to mention his $200 Nike apparel contract, it will require more than just a hot driver.

As he headed out of Erin Hills on a buggy on Saturday night, Paul McGinley mulled over the phenomenal driving distance statistics and the strength in depth of the modern game.

"Everybody is so good on tour these days," McGinley said, aghast that 142 out of 156 players in the field averaged over 300 yards from the tee in the first round alone.

"There are over 100 guys this week hitting the ball over 300 yards on fairways that are not rock hard. That's the trend in professional golf and it is a distinct advantage.

"Even the small guys like Justin Thomas are able to bomb it. It's the modern game.

"Technology hasn't given the advantage back to the shot-makers. The golf ball is based around power and the golf balls have been made to go far distances with little shape on them.

"So technology has pushed things that way and the USGA and the R&A have decided to take a back seat on it and say, 'It is what it is' and we are going to keep going down that road."

On his day, McIlroy is still the best driver of the ball in the game but the gap has narrowed and the recent plethora of first-time Major winners is not an anomaly.

"Yes, unlike tennis, where the top four or five players are miles ahead of anybody else, this not the case in golf any more where the 50th ranked player in the world is very close to a No 1 in the world," McGinley said. "It leads to a more competitive sport."

McGinley was not surprised to see McIlroy struggle in the US Open having played just 20 competitive strokeplay rounds in the 153 days between his seasonal debut at the BMW SA Open in January and the US Open.

That McIlroy's 21st strokeplay round of the year was a 78 didn't surprise the Dubliner in the least but he gave the world No 2 a pass - not just because he has missed six events because of his rib injury but because he has a new set of clubs, as well as a new golf ball and putter, in his bag.

"I didn't fancy Rory for that reason. You can't just rock up and win a Major, no matter how good a player you are or how competitive you are, unless you have rounds under your belt," McGinley said.

Set to play six events over the next eight weeks, McIlroy's biggest challenge is to bed in that new equipment, including a new golf ball and putter.

But he also has to contend with the continuing emergence of powerful young players, not just his peers.

Worrying

One man who does see a worrying bigger picture for the likes of McIlroy is three-time Major winner Pádraig Harrington, who pointed out last year that, if the Holywood star is going to get into double digits in Major wins, he is going to have to start winning them in bunches soon.

"If he putts okay, he's going to be right there," Harrington said of McIlroy's game and the inevitable erosion of his advantage off the tee.

"But with the kids coming out of college now, in five to 10 years' time there are going to be a lot of players like that.

"So if Rory is to get to high numbers (in Major wins), it is the next number of years that will determine it."

Just as Woods' huge driving advantage was eventually eaten away, McIlroy also faces the same challenge to his supremacy.

"Rory's advantage will be eaten up in time too," Harrington said. "He is young and he's got time to win more Majors, but the more he wins, the quicker the better.

"There might be three players like him now but in 10 years' time, there might be 15."

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