Monday 19 March 2018

McIlroy falters at final hurdle

Rory McIlroy plays a bunker shot yesterday at the Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur where he eventually finished third. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy plays a bunker shot yesterday at the Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur where he eventually finished third. Photo: Getty Images

William S Callahan

Seven days after his Masters meltdown Rory McIlroy endured another dose of the Sunday blues yesterday as Italian teenager Matteo Manassero clinched a sensational second European Tour victory in six months at the Maybank Malaysian Open.

Unlike his implosion at Augusta National, McIlroy contended all the way to the final hole in Kuala Lumpur, which he then bogeyed in an all-out bid for victory, leaving him third on 14-under, two shy of Manassero and one behind Gregory Bourdy of France.

McIlroy had led the field by two going into yesterday's 27-hole marathon and immediately extended his advantage to three by sinking a 10-foot putt for birdie at the 10th hole of his storm-interrupted third round.

However, fatigue took its inevitable toll as McIlroy stumbled to a jaded-looking double-bogey five at 15. After signing for a level-par 72, the Holywood star trailed Manassero and Sweden's Alexander Noren going into the final 18 holes.

Somehow, McIlroy managed to raise a gallop in that fourth round, the tournament eventually turning on a brilliant eagle by the young Italian at 10 and an unfortunate double-bogey six for the Ulsterman at 12, when his approach fell a couple of feet shy of the green and plugged in the face of a bunker.


Still McIlroy battled on. He holed-out from 11 feet for a sweet birdie at 14; made a neat up-and-down from a greenside bunker at 15 and gamely picked up further shots at 16 and 17 to move to within one of Manassero's lead playing the last, a challenging 630-yard par five.

Here McIlroy drew his driver and smashed a high, drawing tee-shot into the ether, his ball carrying more than 300 yards before coming to ground in deep rough just in front of the right fairway bunker, barely a couple of yards from perfection.

The long grass caught the hosel and the Irishman's lay-up flew left of the fairway, leaving an 8-iron approach. Again, luck was not on McIlroy's side as his ball stopped on a ridge in the heart of the green 20 yards from the cup.

Needing to hole this perplexing double-breaker to force a play-off, McIlroy understandably blew his all-or-nothing putt through the first break -- his ball rolled off the left side of the ridge, on to the fringe and it took him two more to get down.

So McIlroy finished his tournament as he started it last Thursday, with a three-under-par 69. The undoubted highlight of a week which yielded a cheque for €108,349 was a sensational course record-equalling 64 on Friday. Yet McIlroy's performance on the heavily-grained greens in Kuala Lumpur was as unsettling as his showing on the super-slick surfaces at Augusta National.

With 34 putts in his third round and an average of 31-plus over the four days, it's painfully clear his putting needs attention.

Manassero doesn't hit the ball as far as McIlroy but he invariably hits it straight and true and has a wonderful touch with the putter as he loped home with rounds of 67 and 68 at the weekend.

So often, the Italian's ball seems to fall into the hole on its last roll, a mark of true confidence, which the Ulsterman must envy.

Already the youngest winner on the European Tour following last October's victory at the Castellon Masters, Manassero proved beyond any doubt in Malaysia that he's a cool finisher.

His rewards extend beyond the €288,466 cheque which boosts his earnings from 11 months as a pro to €1.3m. For one, this win propels Manassero into golf's elite top-50.

After becoming the youngest player to make the cut (as an amateur) at the 2010 Masters, Manassero was disappointed not to make it to Augusta this year, but a place in the top-50 earns him automatic entry to the Majors, World Golf Championships and next month's Players Championship at Sawgrass. More like Luke Donald in length, style and approach, he's unlikely ever to be a hot fancy at the Masters or the US Open but watch out for him at The Open.

McIlroy, who rises two places to World No 7 on the back of yesterday's finish, said: "I started off the tournament pretty well and I think to shoot the scores I did this week, with all the travel and stuff, was a pretty good effort.


"I'm proud of the way I picked myself up from last week. I'm proud of myself with the way I came back on the back nine from 14 to 17. I'm just disappointed with the result."

Yet he doffed his cap to Manassero. "Matteo is fantastic. It's his second win on tour and he deserves it. He's a great talent. To get two wins on the European Tour before your 18th birthday is pretty special. He's a great player but we've known that for a long time."

Irish Independent

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