Thursday 22 February 2018

McIlroy’s Major worry for 2018 - How Rory stacks up against the four championship courses

Brian Keogh charts the year ahead for the Holywood star as he bids to claim a career Grand Slam at the Masters

Rory McIlroy reacts after his second shot on the 16th hole during day two of the British Masters at Close House Golf Club last September in Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy reacts after his second shot on the 16th hole during day two of the British Masters at Close House Golf Club last September in Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy might have put the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open back on the map, but his focus for 2018 and beyond will be on turning "a great career into one of the greatest careers" by adding to his Major tally.

While there has been no official indication that the County Down man is about to step back from his commitment to hosting the $7 million Rolex Series event via his charitable foundation after this year's edition at Ballyliffin, he is focusing all his energies on his golfing legacy.

"Discussions with the European Tour with regards to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open for 2019 and beyond have not yet started," a spokesman for the four-time Major winner indicated when asked about the world No 11's plans for the Irish Open beyond 2018. "It is unlikely we will have movement on this until Q2 2018."

Watch this space for what McIlroy, Dubai Duty Free and the European Tour decide to do in 2019, but with Justin Rose following in the footsteps of Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood as host of the British Masters, rotating the hosting duties is not out of the question.

Rory McIlroy with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola during the Pro-Am ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship at Portstewart Golf Club. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Rory McIlroy with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola during the Pro-Am ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship at Portstewart Golf Club. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The 28-year-old's thoughts are not on that energy-sapping week on the Inishowen peninsula just yet, however, but on the Masters.

And he will have had more time than ever to reflect on the next chapter of his career when he returns to the fairways refreshed after the longest break of his professional career - 14 weeks compared to an average winter break of six weeks - in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship from January 18-21.

The 2017 season was a bitterly disappointing one for the Holywood native who suffered a rib injury last January, played just 18 events with his new TaylorMade clubs and fell from second to 11th in the world rankings after recording a first winless campaign since 2008.

Busy bee

But he has been a busy bee since then, remaining true to his end-of-season promise to leave no stone unturned in his bid to return to winning ways, especially in the Majors.

"These three months off could give me the foundation to have the next 10 years be even better than the 10 years I've just had," he said at the end of last term.

Rory McIlroy takes a break on the 12th tee at Alfred Dunhill Championship at Carnoustie. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy takes a break on the 12th tee at Alfred Dunhill Championship at Carnoustie. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

"Hopefully, that turns a great career into one of the greatest careers."

Getting healthy again was his key goal, but he's also worked hard on his wedge game and putting and looked closely at the ways in which he physically prepares.

"I struggled with an injury pretty much all year last year and I just needed to take a little bit of time out to rehab and let that heal to make sure that I'm 100pc for next year," he told UAE-based Sport360 last month.

"It's actually been nice to get away from tournament golf. I've been a professional for 10 years, so just to take a few months off and recalibrate everything and reset to get ready for the next few years was nice.

"I allowed myself that little bit of a break to feel rejuvenated and ready to go again next year. I'm feeling good, and I'm really excited. I haven't been this excited about a golf season for a while, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Spotted hitting balls in the snow on a visit home not long ago, McIlroy will play more events than ever before the Masters - no fewer than eight - believing he has not played enough over the past few years.

"That has been good because it has kept me fresh for certain parts of the year, but at the same time - I just want to play," said McIlroy, who has preferred to continue with pal Harry Diamond as caddie following his parting of ways with JP Fitzgerald after The Open.

"I'm just excited to get back out on the course. This is the time for me, as it's not as if I have any other commitments or anything else going on in my life.

"I just want to get out there, play golf tournaments and get back in the thick of things. I guess when you're not injured you take your health for granted a little bit and when you're struggling with your body, all you want is to be healthy and do whatever you can.

"I've taken that side of things a little more seriously, by really watching what I'm doing in terms of diet and making sure that I'm warming up properly and doing everything I need to get myself 100pc healthy and in shape.

"I've just been a little more diligent with that side of things, but in terms of the golf, I don't feel like I need to do anything differently. I feel like I've done a good bit of work in the last few weeks on my swing and on my game and I feel like I'm ready to go next year."

If he fails to win the 2018 Masters, McIlroy will have gone three years and seven months without a Major win - not a disaster but certainly a concern for a man of his talents.

If he wins and becomes just the sixth player after Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods to complete the modern career Grand Slam, his end-of-season goal to make this year's winter break the most telling of his career will have paid off in spades.

While recent Masters wins for the likes of Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcia prove that you don't have to be the best putter in the world to win the Masters, McIlroy will be keen to improve with his putter in 2018 having finished last season ranked 140th for strokes gained on the greens, while he knows his wedge play from between 100 and 125 yards can also improve.

The bookies rate McIlroy a 4/9 shot to end the season without a Major win but he's 2/1 to take his tally to five and just 11/1 to win a brace.

Older and wiser but facing more competition than ever from fellow young guns, here's a quick snapshot of what lies ahead in the Majors for the most successful player in the history of Irish golf.

The Masters, April 5-8, 2018, Augusta National, Georgia

If Garcia's maiden Major win proves anything, it's that you can never say never at Augusta National. With just three top-10s in his 18 previous starts, the Spaniard claimed the Holy Grail with that play-off victory over Justin Rose.

Irish eyes will be on McIlroy at Augusta in 2018 when he makes his fourth attempt at completing the career Grand Slam.

And with his four career top-10s coming in his last four starts there, he seems to be getting more comfortable. He also loves to lead from the front, and while first-round leaders have won just twice at Augusta since 1986, McIlroy's lone sub-70 opening round (a 65) came in 2011 when he closed with that nightmarish 80 to slip from first to 65th.

US Open, June 14-17, 2018, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, New York

Traditionally firm and fast Major venues are not a natural fit for McIlroy so one wonders how the USGA will react to the criticism of the set-up at Erin Hills in 2017, where Brooks Koepka shot the third-lowest winning total (272) on a wide-open venue and equalled McIlroy's 16-under par US Open record.

Always a tough test, Shinnecock Hills was so tricky that in 2004 the USGA almost lost the greens and not a single golfer broke par in the final round as Retief Goosen handed Phil Mickelson the third of his six runner-up finishes in his national open. If the left-hander finally were to complete the career Grand Slam in June, he would do so at the age of 48, matching 1968 US PGA winner Julius Boros as the oldest winner of a Major in the modern era.

 

The Open Championship, July 14-17, 2018, Carnoustie Golf Links

Jordan Spieth's incredible three-shot win at Royal Birkdale will be hard to match. Three ahead overnight, he wobbled to be tied with Matt Kuchar through the turn, lost the lead at the 13th after what turned out to be a sensational bogey, then played the next four holes in five-under and won by three.

Carnoustie - AKA Car-nasty- is a different beast but 11 years after Pádraig Harrington's Major breakthrough, it may offer Garcia the perfect chance to avenge that 2007 disappointment. But it's also a good fit for McIlroy, who won the Silver Medal awarded to the leading amateur there on his debut in a Major.

US PGA Championship, August 9-12, 2018, Bellerive CC, Missouri

Justin Thomas became the seventh first-time Major winner in eight years at Quail Hollow in 2017 but will there be another first-timer in Missouri or will Jordan Spieth complete his career Grand Slam? If he doesn't get it done at Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills or Carnoustie, Rickie Fowler will carry the 'best player without a Major' tag all the way to Bellerive, where Zimbabwe's Nick Price made his Major breakthrough in 1992.

If McIlroy is looking for a reason to back himself, he may be comforted to know that just one American has won a significant event there - Peter Jacobsen in the 2004 US Senior Open. Gary Player (1965 US Open), Price, Camilo Villegas (2008 BMW Championship) and Koki Idoki (2013 Senior PGA Championship) offer the internationals hope.

Irish Independent

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