Sport Golf

Saturday 17 March 2018

McIlroy turns on the magic

Holywood idol hits the birdie trail on marathon day's play to remain hot on heels of leading contenders

RORY McILROY hopes to conjure up his first Major title with a touch of that old Quail Hollow magic with his putter at Whistling Straits this weekend.

McIlroy went into the US PGA Championship as joint second favourite with Tiger Woods and behind only Phil Mickelson, and fully justified that rating and his reputation as one of the most exciting young prospects in professional golf with a superb second-round 68.

After landing a splendid tally of seven birdies in the marathon 23 holes he had to play on another fog-hit day at the season's fourth Major championship, McIlroy lay just three strokes off the commanding clubhouse lead held by American Matt Kuchar (32) on eight under par.

Holywood's young idol polished off the final five holes of his first-round 71 before lunch and, after just a few minutes to gather his thoughts and snatch a quick bite, he hit the birdie trail once again. As he headed back into the fray, McIlroy expressed his determination to eliminate the errors which had led to the two double-bogeys which blighted his card in the opening 18 holes. He certainly was good to his word.

The 21-year old had just one bogey in the second round, at the par-four seventh, his 16th hole, where he failed to get up and down from tangled greenside rough. Yet McIlroy more than made-up for the short putt he missed for par there by sinking an eight-footer for a bounceback birdie at the next following his shot of the championship from deep rough, halfway up a slope to the right of the fairway.

It was an inspired stroke of the sort which illuminated his sensational weekend sprint to victory at Quail Hollow in the spring, when he followed up a 66 on Saturday with a stunning course-record 62 on Sunday to clinch his first victory in the US and second as a professional.

McIlroy's long-time mentor Darren Clarke took a dizzying combination of punches on his resumption yesterday morning but, to his credit, still came up smiling after signing for a first-round 74 that had promised so much better the night before.

That golf has absolutely no regard for poignancy or life's milestones became all too apparent as Clarke dropped four shots in the five remaining holes of his fog-delayed opening round, which happened to be the fourth anniversary of his late wife Heather's passing.

After missing the 30-foot putt for par at 14 which he'd slept-on overnight, Clarke missed a seven-footer for par at the exacting par-four 15th hole; took four to get down from 25 yards short of the green and missed a 30-inch putt on his way to a jaw-clenching bogey-six at 16.

Worse was to follow at 17, where he missed the green left and wound up in a deep footprint in a bunker by the lake shore, some 25 feet beneath the green. After double-bogey five there and a superb par save from bottomless rough at 18, one waited with apprehension for Clarke to emerge from the scorer's room.

Yet he came out beaming, confirming recent evidence that the Ulsterman's perspective on life and the game really has changed for the better . . . and he reaped just reward in the afternoon with a two-under 70 which lifted him to level par for the championship and well inside the projected cut mark.

Shane Lowry can move fast when he needs to. Having just signed for an eventful 71 in his fog-delayed opening 18 holes at a Major championship in the US, the beefy Clara lad had just 10 minutes before he was required to hit the opening shot of his second round.

So we talked on the run. "I suppose one under is not too bad," said Lowry, who was tied 22nd with his good mate McIlroy and Tiger Woods, to name but two, as the first round concluded at lunchtime yesterday.

In fact, the 23-year-old's performance in that first round suggested that over the next few years golf enthusiasts will have to get used to the idea of Lowry and McIlroy (21) blazing the trail for Ireland at the Major championships as they did in the first round on the Straits Course.


As Lowry proved with his sensational victory as an amateur in last year's '3' Irish Open, there's a lot more to this big easy-going young golfer than many at first suspect. Where McIlroy's natural brilliance and volatility was heavily underscored by the six birdies and two double-bogeys he registered in his first 18 holes, the superb shot Lowry picked up on the ninth and final hole of his first round stood in testament to his splendidly even temperament.

Several of Lowry's qualities are visible. For example, he's a good driver of the ball and a glorious pitch and chipper. Yet his most important attribute is not so readily discernable. Though passionate about his golf and a fastidious worker, Lowry rarely seems as troubled by imperfection in his game as McIlroy. He shoulders setbacks so well, one might describe him as Ireland's 'Big Easy'.

That temperament would be sorely tested yesterday afternoon as Lowry dropped three shots in the first five holes of his second round, which certainly was forgivable, though he'd rebound in typical fashion by chipping in from 30 yards for an eagle two at six.

Friday the 13th would be exhausting for those like Lowry, McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, who were unable to complete their first round before dusk fell on Thursday.

In total, 78 rose before 4.45 am yesterday morning and by 5.15 most of them were hitting golf balls under arc lights at the practice range in Whistling Straits. Then, for the second day in succession, thick fog billowed in off Lake Michigan, delaying the start of play until 9.40.

To survive in this arena, the professional golfer must become practiced in the art of time-killing. Lowry was two under par after nine holes at the end of a glorious evening on Thursday. Playing well as darkness fell, Lowry didn't want one of the longest days at the US PGA Championship to end, yet his ball-striking would lose its edge during a marathon second day in Wisconsin.

Lowry had nine holes to play in his second round when he returned yesterday morning and was still two under for the championship as he stepped onto the tee at the par-three seventh. Then two bad shots led to bogeys there and at the par-four eighth. Frustratingly, Lowry's monster drive into the heart of the fairway at eight made his leaked approach to 30 feet even harder to take. There's no physical contact in golf, though setbacks like that which befell Lowry at eight can be as stunning to the professional as a punch on the jaw.

In boxing parlance, Lowry has a chin as solid as any you'll find in the business, as he proved on the ninth tee moments later, when he slammed another perfect drive miles down the fairway; hit a superlative 140 yards wedge to eight feet and holed the birdie putt.

Lowry impressively made the weekend on his Major championship debut at St Andrews, but he dropped shots at holes 10, 11 and 12 in his second round to slip to three-over, two outside the projected cut mark with five to play.

Yet, regardless of how much further he progresses at Whistling Straits, Lowry showed enough of the right stuff in his first round to suggest he has a star-spangled future at golf's Grand Slams.

Irish Independent

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