Sport Golf

Thursday 23 January 2020

McIlroy is perfecting art of making great golf look easy

His new-found clarity of thought has turned Rory into a fearsome opponent, writes Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

A two-iron second shot of 230 yards soared through the wind on the treacherous 18th at Carnoustie at such a height, that it stopped on the green almost where it landed. This enduring image from Rory McIlroy's Major championship debut as the amateur medal winner in the 2007 Open has evolved into the thrilling spectacle witnessed at Valhalla last weekend.

It's a journey that's been marked by significant maturity, not least in the player's mental approach to the game at the highest level. This was perhaps the most impressive aspect of last Sunday's back nine, where McIlroy seemed to take total command of the challenge, even before he had edged into a winning lead.

It brought to mind a critical point in the final nine of a US Masters some years ago, when the question was put in the TV tower as to what Jack Nicklaus would have been thinking in that particular situation. "If I knew what Nicklaus was thinking, I would have won this tournament three or four times," replied Tom Weiskopf.

Rivals are now having to take the same view of McIlroy. And it won't harm his cause to have put the notion out there in the public domain. Speaking to America's ESPN, he said: "Mentally, I've been really strong over these last few weeks and that's what's made the difference."

He went on: "I think I can improve a lot. The big thing for me is that when I get my head right, when I have clear thoughts and am able to make good decisions on the golf course and not get ahead of myself, or rush myself, that's when I play my best golf. It's not physical. It's more mental for me and I've realised that over the last few weeks."

Combined with superb ball-striking skills, this new-found clarity of thought has turned McIlroy into a fearsome opponent who is being viewed in the US as the key player in the forthcoming Ryder Cup, especially now that Tiger Woods has stood down. One observer who took a particular interest in his Valhalla performance was ESPN analyst Andy North, who also happens to be one of Tom Watson's vice-captains for Gleneagles.

"To be honest, I love the fact that Rory is playing great, purely from a golfing perspective," said the two-time US Open champion. "And he may help the focus of our players by the way he's emphasising the quality of an unbelievably talented European team. For the first time in the last 10 or 12 years, the US may have to adopt the underdog role."

And what of all this US media talk about McIlroy being targeted. What does it actually mean? "Obviously it can't be done in strict competitive terms," North acknowledged. "I think what people mean is that if someone were to beat Rory, it might be worth more than a point because of the psychological effect on the other guys in the team.

"Like, say, a player sees a teammate create a major upset and thinks, so I can beat my guy. A win against the best player on the opposing team can sometimes be worth more than one point. And for the way Rory can influence European hopes, I believe he will have a target on his back. Absolutely."

North walked the final round with Pádraig Harrington in the 2008 Open at Royal Birkdale as an on-course commentator. And in the wake of McIlroy's collapse in the 2011 Masters, he had no hesitation in predicting no lasting effects. How could he be so sure? "Because of the way he handled that experience," he replied. "Most guys blame their nutritionist, their trainer, coach, their wife or their dog. Anybody but themselves. Rory blamed nobody but himself. That's what you need to do to become a great player."

Meanwhile, as the first Major to use the PGA Tour's ShotLink scoring system, the PGA was a statistician's dream. And for Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia Business School and author of the new golf book Every Shot Counts, it was a glorious opportunity of pinpointing why specific players scored as well as they did.

Having analysed strokes gained by competitors for their drives, approach shots, short-game shots and from putting, Broadie concluded that McIlroy won because of his long game. In shots starting more than 100 yards from the hole, he gained almost three strokes per round on his rivals. This represented 70 per cent of his total gain of 4.1 strokes per round against the field.

McIlroy was second in strokes gained through driving and fifth in those gained from approach shots, with each contributing 1.4 strokes per round. And Broadie claimed he was deprived of being first in strokes gained through driving only because of a third-round penalty stroke sustained off the tee at the fourth.

Much has been made, quite understandably, of the three-wood shot of 284 yards which transformed McIlroy's challenge on the long 10th last Sunday. Admitting that it was hit on a trajectory 30 feet lower than intended and 15 yards further left, the player recalled that standing over it, he was thinking he needed "a birdie at least, just to stay somewhat close to the guys ahead of me."

"So I hit my three-wood; same club I hit the first day when I took a double-bogey," he added with a wry smile. Then, with typical McIlroy command of language - "The shot didn't come out perfectly, but it came out just right. It was lucky, it really was. That was the turning point."

How did North think it compared with Harrington's 272-yard five-wood second which set up an eagle-three on Birkdale's 17th, six years ago? "As soon as Harrington hit that shot, the Open Championship was pretty much over," he replied. "But Rory still had eight holes to play, which he did awfully well. Sometimes, these great players make things look so simple."

Watson's long-time friend and playing partner went on: "It's been an amazing Irish run. An island with a population the size of Chicago has won all these Major championships. While Harrington gave the lead to others, Rory is unquestionably special, a player in a generation. And it's going to be really fun to see what he can do.

"I think we all forget how hard it is to win. Looking back at a time when it seemed that Tiger was winning six, seven, eight times every single year, he made it look so easy. Rory's done the same these last few weeks. But remembering how a great player like Greg Norman wasn't able to do it regularly in the Majors, we know it doesn't happen that way. Still, I will be really shocked if Rory doesn't win the Masters for the career Grand Slam. His game is so suited to Augusta that I felt sure his first Major win would have come there."

Back with statistics at the end of a Major season, McIlroy has recorded his fourth triumph in 15 attempts, starting with victory in the 2011 US Open. Woods' tally, which must be considered as ongoing, stands at 14 from 46 attempts, a success rate of 30 per cent, while the record 18 by Nicklaus spanned 100 events.

The most concentrated success in the history of the game was achieved by Bobby Jones who, as an amateur, had only two professional Majors open to him. And between the ages of 21 and 28, he captured four US Opens and three British Opens from a combined 11 attempts for a remarkable success rate of 63 per cent.

Ben Hogan, whose nine wins in 18 Majors delivered a 50 per cent return, gained the unique distinction in 1953 of 100 per cent success in the three in which he competed. He was unable to play in the PGA because of a clash with the Open at Carnoustie.

At the same venue 54 years later, McIlroy's exploits followed an announcement that Joe Carr was to enter golf's Hall of Fame. Which allowed Harrington in his victory speech to refer to the occasion as a celebration of Irish golf past, present and future. That future is now upon us, richer than we ever imagined.

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