Wednesday 20 November 2019

McIlroy manages to keep himself grounded on treacherous terrain

Rory McIlroy's 'suspect' putting has held up very well, writes Dermot Gilleece at Augusta

D uring the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits last August, I gave Rory McIlroy a gift in which he had earlier expressed considerable interest as part of his golfing education. It was a video of the celebrated Shell Wonderful World of Golf match from 1964 when Ben Hogan beat Sam Snead at Houston CC.

It mightn't have registered with McIlroy while watching the tape that the iconic duo had won five US Masters between them. Such details may gain quite a degree of relevance, however, depending on how events unfold for the remarkable 21-year-old at Augusta National today.

Dan Jenkins, the veteran US golf writer, was on friendly, first-name terms with Hogan and Snead at a time when American golfers ruled the world. His verdict on McIlroy? "He's a nice kid and the game needs him," he said on Thursday. Meaning, of course, that the American game needed him, especially with the dominance of Tiger Woods apparently at an end.

Yet out around the course, galleries didn't appear to have made up their minds. Sure, there were gasps of admiration at what is now, unquestionably, the best swing in tournament golf. Even when birdie putts dropped, however, the cheering lacked the frenzied passion which Americans have reserved exclusively in recent years for home-grown heroes like Woods and Phil Mickelson.

From a broader Irish perspective, it was clearly a huge disappointment to see Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell depart Augusta on Friday night for a second successive year. Seventy putts in two days told its own story regarding Harrington's torment. But, in his wake, he had left a lasting impact on one of his playing partners, Bill Haas.

It emerged from a Friday evening chat between Harrington's mind-coach Bob Rotella and Billy Harmon, who teaches Haas the game. The two men had walked together for 36 holes, watching their respective charges. Afterwards, the son of former Masters winner, Claude Harmon, said to Rotella: "I have never seen anybody with a better attitude than Pádraig Harrington, who is the man I admire the most from all the years I have been involved in golf."

Harmon then explained: "Watching him for the last two days was a clinic for my man. After yesterday's (Thursday) round, I told Billy that Pádraig's neck was really bad. And Billy said: 'That's amazing. He never mentioned it once all day.'"

Rotella also revealed that Harrington had huge hopes of getting into contention this weekend. But before his Masters had even got under way, the ambition was wrecked by a strain sustained on the practice ground. "He was on a quest," said the psychologist. "For him, winning here would have represented proof to himself that he could get his mind, body and emotions to do what he wants them to do on a day when he wanted it badly. Now, we will have to look to another challenge and I know his enthusiasm is not in the least diminished."

For McDowell, there was the bitter pill of knowing that one bad shot left him with an uphill battle for survival. It came on the treacherous 155-yard 12th which he faced at one-over par for the tournament, with two reachable par fives still to play. In the event, he never really recovered from a triple-bogey six, even though his renowned fighting qualities never waned.

Reflecting on the innocently-named Golden Bell, he said: "That was the killer blow. I felt like I hit a decent shot in there with a seven iron and though we didn't see the ball come down, we figured it was just over the back. But when we got up there, it was plugged in the pine straw; gone forever. I then eagled 13 to get myself back in it but a clumsy three-putt on 15 and going pin-hunting on the 17th finished me off. To be honest, my putting was awful."

From two previous disappointments, he was acutely aware of the pain of taking unscheduled leave from this special place. But it was all the more difficult to take on this occasion, given the presence of his parents Kenny and Marian and another special guest. When his uncle, Uel Loughrey, who taught him the game, retired on his 65th birthday last month from the greens' staff at Royal Portrush, the US Open champion promised him a trip to the Masters. Now the attention of the Rathmore brigade will have to be switched to McDowell's great friend at the top of the leaderboard.

Far from Georgia sunshine during this month six years ago, McIlroy caused major grief for the amateur bookmakers of Rosses Point by becoming the youngest winner of the West of Ireland Championship. "Oh sweet Jesus, we're ruined," Tom Gavin memorably exploded, on discovering that his partner on the 'book', Dominic Rooney, had laid Gerry McIlroy 8/1 on a €100 each-way bet against his 15-year-old son winning the title. Today, the reward for victory is about $1.4m.

Even after McIlroy's opening 65, however, commentators here remained obsessed with perceived putting problems which they saw as tarnishing an otherwise perfect game. The player's manager Chubby Chandler expressed mild amusement. "Rory gives himself so many chances that he looks as if his putting isn't especially impressive," he said. "But it is. Stats bear that out.

"If you hit it to 15 feet on every hole, you look as if you're missing a high percentage. But our stat-man, who studied Rory's figures, established that far from being some way down in the world's top-100 in putting, he's actually in the top-20. Which seems amazing. But that's why you get stats done."

From my own observations, it seemed McIlroy tended to treat putting with the same freewheeling attitude he did the rest of his game. While the

putting stroke was invariably sound, he could finish remarkably wide of the target with some attempts. Not this week. Suspect putting wouldn't allow you to escape without a bogey for 29 holes (until being bunkered on the 12th on Friday) on the toughest greens in the game.

Scrambling, of course, is an essential part of success at Augusta National, which explains why Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson both won this title twice. As joint course-record holder Nick Price pointed out: "If you want to be putting from 60 feet all day, you can hit all 18 greens." Price, incidentally, hit 15 greens when setting the record 63 in the third round in 1986 and Greg Norman went one better with 16 in equalling it in 1996.

Considerable care has been evident in every McIlroy stroke here. As an example, when faced with a tricky five-footer for birdie on the ninth on Friday, he studied the putt from in front of the hole, behind the hole and to the side, for a full 30 seconds. He then stood over it for a further 10 seconds before executing: it went unerringly into the middle.

Meanwhile, examples of marvellous driving were one smashed beyond the fairway bunker on the eighth -- a carry of 316 yards -- and another of 323, down to the bottom of the dip at the ninth.

Indeed he seems to be enjoying the experience of this, his 101st professional tournament so much, that it revives memories of his not too-distant youth. "It's the same feeling you get as a child on Christmas morning," he said. "You can't sleep. You're up at five or six. You're waiting. It's just a very special place."

Alvaro Quiros, the jovial, power-hitting Spaniard who was tied with McIlroy after the opening round, seemed to have no doubt about his rival's qualities as tournament leader. When I pointed out that McIlroy was so young, Quiros nodded "Yeah. And (he's) good. What's the problem with that?"

Mind you, on Friday, the eve of the birthday of compatriot Ballesteros, he seemed to be having problems of his own, wondering whether his English caddie was working in yards or metres. "I hope he make the change to metres," he said. "Otherwise he wouldn't be right on any of the shots. But he's a person. He's a human being like me. I will say some good words to him and that's all."

Quiros has clearly decided that a sense of humour is another critical ingredient when challenging for this coveted title. Because a surfeit of pain can lie in wait.

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