Wednesday 27 March 2019

'McIlroy is a notch above them all, including Nicklaus and Woods . . .'

World No 1's aura will draw leading names to next year's Irish Open

Rory McIlroy’s imperious form at the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles convinced Des Smyth that he’s moved to a new level of achievement
Rory McIlroy’s imperious form at the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles convinced Des Smyth that he’s moved to a new level of achievement

Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy will be thinking beyond titles, as he prepares in Dubai for his final tournament appearances of a wonderfully productive year. In his capacity as official host of next year's Irish Open at Royal Co Down, special favours will be sought from distinguished golfing rivals.

Irrespective of his finish in the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah on November 20 to 23, McIlroy is assured of winning the Race to Dubai for a second time in three years. He then defends the Australian Open the following week as his last event before a six-week winter break, starting on December 1.

By that stage, the player described by Des Smyth as the greatest he has ever seen will be hoping to have secured Irish Open commitments from a select few, as a crucial element of his new role. Among them could be his hapless Ryder Cup victim, Rickie Fowler, who earned three points from four when contributing memorably to America's Walker Cup victory at Newcastle in 2007.

Experience with a modest prize fund has shown that serious overseas candidates, generally spoiled for choice, will need a special incentive to come to these shores on May 28-31 next. The solution may lie in some persuasive arm-twisting by the world's No 1, though he will do so in the knowledge of a likely quid pro quo down the line.

The knock-on effect of having an elite group to complement McIlroy and Graeme McDowell at the head of the field is enhanced world-ranking points. And these, it has been demonstrated, can represent a powerful attraction for aspirants to the top tier.

So, we may be about to witness just how significant player-power can be, in the person of McIlroy's geniality and immense talent. Of course the downside for the Holywood star is that having to return any favours could come at some inconvenience to himself. Which is a measure of what he is prepared to do to enhance the status of the Irish Open.

Either way, new or infrequent challengers can bank on a enthusiastic reception, based on cumulative attendances in recent years. Those four-day figures are: Killarney 2010 - 81,738; Killarney 2011 - 85,179; Royal Portrush 2012 - 112,280; Carton House 2013 - 81,379; Fota Island 2014 - 97,889.

Nine of Europe's Gleneagles heroes will be in action this week in the Turkish Airlines Open in Antalya where, in the absence of McIlroy and McDowell, the Irish challenge will be led by Shane Lowry. And the hope is that Victor Dubuisson can find more of the magic which brought him a memorable breakthrough 12 months ago.

Meanwhile, stunning victories in the Open Championship, Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in successive appearances last summer swept McIlroy to a new level of achievement. And according to Smyth, it was reflected in his every move of a memorable week at Gleneagles.

"I first became aware of it during practice on the Tuesday," said Smyth, who was one of Paul McGinley's trusted vice-captains. "The long 16th was playing into a good breeze when Rory joined me on the tee. His three playing partners had stayed behind on the 15th, pitching and chipping. That was when Rory hit a drive that I knew he had absolutely flushed.

"Along came Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia and I couldn't help laughing to myself, imagining their reaction when they walked down the fairway. Rory had been hitting it comfortably 10 or 15 yards outside them for most of the round but this one was right out of the middle of the club. The three boys all proceeded to hit good tee-shots at 16 but on reaching their balls, they could see that Rory was a full 40 yards beyond them. That was when they threw their arms in the air as if pleading, 'How the hell can we compete with this?'" Of course it was the Americans who suffered that particular week.

Smyth went on: "Those reactions were understandable when you consider that, as a wonderful iron player, Rory is as good as the best at all other aspects of the game. He's also got a beautiful attitude, is happy on the golf course and is totally comfortable with being world No 1.

"What he did to Fowler on the Sunday was remarkable. At number three in the order he set off like a thoroughbred and it was all over after six holes (by which stage McIlroy was six-under par and five up). In a display that would have slaughtered anybody, he was eight-under when the match ended 5 and 4 on the 14th. You had to feel sorry for Fowler."

While reflecting on how individual players reacted to the emotional stress of a severely demanding week, Smyth got to thinking about the great competitors he had encountered during a lengthy playing career. "Seve Ballesteros was in a class of his own," he asserted. "He had an incredible, burning desire to win all the time, even if it may have shortened his career. I believe that sort of competitive intensity can lead to burnout, though you couldn't but admire it."

When our attention turned inevitably to Jack Nicklaus, I mentioned Tom Watson's assertion that he had never seen anybody better at working a ball around a golf course. Smyth agreed. "Nicklaus dominated through his extraordinary mental strength. He was supreme at reading the pattern of a golf tournament and would be like a guy waiting in the long grass for rivals to come unstuck. Which they did, regularly. From the Nicklaus era, I played with all the great players, with the exception of Tiger Woods. At his peak, it struck me that he was a lot like Gary Player and Seve in his enormous desire to win. Like Seve, he didn't let many tournaments slip, and as a truly great putter his killer instinct was beyond belief. Under pressure, he was probably the best putter I've ever seen."

Smyth then recalled a conversation he heard of at a time of Nick Faldo's celebrated grinding, involving the Englishman, Ian Woosnam, Bernard Langer and Ballesteros. Remarkably, all agreed that on their best day, the one player they would still have to bow to was Sandy Lyle, because of his amazing talent.

So, against this background, where does McIlroy fit? "He's a notch above them all, including Nicklaus and Woods," Smyth replied. "As a pro all my life, I worked hard at becoming a good player but I knew I could never aspire to the highest level.

"Down the years, there have been great Irish players like Fred Daly and Christy (O'Connor) and Harry (Bradshaw) whom I looked up to and admired. But as good as they were, they, too, were always a notch behind the likes of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Nicklaus. When I look at Rory, however, I see ball-striking beyond belief. And isn't it wonderful that he's Irish.

"He is so good that, accepting the limitations of the human condition, I believe he can win to order. In other words, when he's on his game, nobody is going to beat him. That's why I'm so excited about the prospect of seeing him complete the career slam in Augusta next April."

Pádraig Harrington's breakthrough in 2007 led to magical times for Irish golf. Now, with McIlroy at the helm, the good news is that those times may be about to become even better.

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