Monday 26 August 2019

McIlroy putting pressure on himself

Stark statistics may be a cruel measure but Rory's putts per round are very revealing

Carnoustie: ‘A course you respect but not a course you love.’ Photo: David Cannon/Getty
Carnoustie: ‘A course you respect but not a course you love.’ Photo: David Cannon/Getty

Dermot Gilleece

In a charming, supportive gesture, Rory McIlroy played with three-year-old Paddy Harrington behind the 18th green at Carnoustie, while the child's father was battling with Sergio Garcia in a play-off for the 2007 Open Championship. Eleven years on, all three will be back there this week, with McIlroy attempting to add a second such title to his leading amateur award of that occasion.

It's a hugely sentimental journey for the Dublin family. Pádraig Harrington changed the face of Irish golf by becoming not only this island's first Major winner since 1947, but in paving the way for similar achievements from his countrymen in the years that followed.

From his victory at Royal Liverpool in 2014, McIlroy will be aware of the 147th Open as a very different assignment from those carefree days before he embarked on a tournament professional's career. One imagines the heady thoughts conjured by a performance which saw him tied third after an opening 68 and ultimately tied 42nd when a closing 72 was sufficient to secure the coveted silver medal.

His finish could hardly have been more impressive, especially in the context of Harrington's potential disaster there. On the 499-yard 18th, acknowledged as the most difficult finishing hole in championship golf, the 18-year-old unleashed what he described as "a really, really good drive" into the wind.

It left him with 230 yards still to negotiate, which happened to be perfect distance for a two-iron - "probably one of the best iron shots I hit all week." And after knocking it almost stiff, he proceeded to hole the putt for a closing birdie.

His performance overall was so impressive that we paid little attention to the championship statistics. As it happened, McIlroy was ranked 15th in driving distance. More revealing from a current perspective, however, is that he had a total of 120 putts for the four days, leaving him ranked 46th in that particular category. Harrington, incidentally, was ranked eighth with 111 putts. When the poet John Milton could drag himself away from contemplation of the hereafter, he talked of time as "the subtle thief of youth".

For McIlroy, the passage of 11 years would seem to have brought no significant change to his putting, if we're to judge from events at Ballyliffin last weekend. There, 123 putts for the four rounds left him 64th in that category. If you used the measurement of putts per greens hit in regulation, the outcome came at 1.809, for 53rd position.

It seems cruel to reduce the challenge of such a talented player to such stark figures, but that's the way of the game. "Tee to green has been really good," he said in the wake of Ballyliffin. "I could take my tee-to-green game straight to the Open and be happy where it is. It's just a matter of being a little more efficient and taking my opportunities when I give myself them. Be just a little more efficient with my scoring." There was no need for him to further specify the money shots - those played around the green.

Ireland's representation this week comprises past champions McIlroy, Harrington and Darren Clarke, along with Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne. After the mess of missing qualifying because of lost clubs, Graeme McDowell went to the Scottish Open at Gullane in the hope of joining this quinet through one of the remaining slots this weekend.

Meanwhile, with Jordan Spieth defending the title he won so competitively at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago, the championship promises a fierce battle for supremacy. Indeed the same could be said of most Majors these days, because of the quality of the players dominating the rankings.

This particular event is especially interesting because of the appearance of Haraldur Magnus, the first Icelandic man to compete in a Major championship. Magnus booked a place at Carnoustie through final qualifying at Prince's GC, so signalling the success of a 15-year effort at growing the game in that country.

When I was in Reykjavik for the 1981 European Junior Team Championship, Iceland had 2,200 golfers in 21 clubs playing 18 courses, several of which were in very poor condition. As a measure of how Icelandic golf has followed the country's strides in soccer, they now have 65 courses with 17,000 registered club members. In fact, it is estimated that around 40,000 people, close on 10 per cent of the population, are now devotees of the royal and ancient game.

Carnoustie has altered little over the years, other than in lengthening and other refinements to cope with changing equipment and spectator needs. At 7,402 yards (par 71), this week's layout is slightly shorter than in 2007, when the course record was lowered to 64, carded by Steve Stricker of the US and Australia's Richard Green.

Late in 2016, the design duo of Mackenzie and Ebert were commissioned to prepare the links for this week's championship. As part of that preparation, Martin Ebert made a number of subtle changes, which included the widening of the fairway on the 358-yard third and the repositioning of two bunkers, offering more options off the tee. Interestingly, the work was undertaken by the Irish company, SOL Golf.

Further refinements included the revetting of 80 of the 111 bunkers, similar to the work done at Ballyliffin in preparation for last week's Irish Open. And we're informed that roughly 2,000 square yards of turf were required for areas where gorse was removed so as to improve spectator movement. Harrington's problems in a back nine of 40 on the Friday at Ballyliffin had to do mainly with wayward driving. And remarkable as it may seem, this can be traced back to the events of 2007 at Carnoustie. "The tee-shot I hit on 18 (his 72nd) has affected me to this day when it comes to my driving," he admitted. "So could you imagine what the implications would have been had I lost!"

A few weeks after Harrington's triumph, Tiger Woods publicly aired his views on the Carnoustie climax for the first time.

"It was very interesting to see it," he said smiling. "Paddy looked like he was going to win it and then didn't look like he was going to finish the [72nd] hole."

Given the return of El Tigre to the Open for the first time since he missed the cut at St Andrews in 2015, it's striking to note that his first experience of links terrain was at Carnoustie in the 1995 Scottish Open.

That was where, as a 19-year-old amateur, the embryonic great one observed naively: "It's a bit different from links golf in America." More sensibly, he went on: "You get the good breaks and the bad, but it's a lot of fun. You can't get much harder than those finishing holes."

And in considering that difficulty, one imagines he had the 18th very much in mind. It seems to capture perfectly the severity of a test where 81 players failed to break 80 in at least one round during the nightmare Open of 1999. "There is hardly a hole in golf which limits your options as much as it does," said Harrington. "If you had something in hand facing the second shot, it would be wise to lay up. Either way, the tee-shot must always be driver."

Though the North Sea is visible from only the 15th hole, this formidable links offers little shelter from ever-present winds. Indeed its holes have been compared somewhat starkly to a discarded string of pearls, retreating from the ravages of the Tay estuary.

"Carnoustie," said Harrington, "is a tough, hard challenge; a course you respect but not a course you love." Just so.

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