Thursday 23 November 2017

Miller's warning shot must be heeded by erratic McIlroy

Leading American golf analyst knows first-hand the pitfalls of not adhering to a more consistent approach, writes Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy shakes hands with marker Jeff Knox on the 18th green during yesterday's third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club
Rory McIlroy shakes hands with marker Jeff Knox on the 18th green during yesterday's third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club

Dermot Gilleece

Each time Rory McIlroy mixed birdies with blunders over the opening two rounds here at Augusta National, the words of Johnny Miller seemed to adopt a disturbing resonance. "Lack of consistency deprived me of the ability to dominate tournament golf, and Rory has the same problem," claimed America's leading golf analyst.

While Miller referred to regular, challenging positions on Sunday being the key to Major success, McIlroy had to make a testing, six-foot putt on the 18th on Friday evening simply to survive into the weekend on the cut limit of four-over par.

"With the top players not winning right now, there's a huge opening for somebody who can play great golf, and I believe Rory's the player to fill it," added the former winner of the US Open and Open Championship titles. "I believe he has more talent than anybody on tour. I really do. When he's on, I believe he has more horsepower than anybody in golf."

Outside the clubhouse at Augusta National, with a panoramic view of the first tee and beyond, you tended to take particular notice of his nondescript jacket as Miller talked about Masters past. And you wondered about his thoughts on seeing broadcasting rival Nick Faldo parading round the grounds last week in a rather special green one.

Miller doesn't have a coveted green jacket. And reflecting on what still ranks as a distinguished career, he can appreciate its value, especially when reminded regularly of a spectacular 65-66 finish, which still left him a stroke behind Jack Nicklaus in 1975. There were also second-place finishes in 1971 and 1981.

"Rory and I are a lot alike and I wouldn't want to see him make the same mistakes I did," said Miller. "Like him, I had the ability to separate myself from the field. And I'd win by eight, 12 or even 14 shots. I won the British (1976 Open) by six. Yet I just never knew when I was going to play great.

"Rory's like that. When he's on, he can win by big margins. It's a great trait. But on the negative side, he's sort of hot and cold, isn't he? He's a streak player and while a streak player can win a lot of tournaments in the course of a career, I would like to see him become more consistent.

"Nicklaus knew that and we talked about it several times. He knew that if you took advantage of the par fives and put yourself up there, the others would just fall away. That's how he won all those Majors, just about.

The mood darkened somewhat when he continued: "I, on the other hand, allowed myself to become seduced by the excitement of going at the flag with a great iron game. If I had to do it all over again, I would play a course like this far more conservatively and not try to tear it apart."

So is McIlroy overly aggressive, as demonstrated, for instance, by his ruinous flying of the green at the short fourth on Friday to run up a double-bogey five? "Not necessarily," came the reply. "Rory isn't shooting for pins as much as I did. But for whatever reason, maybe focus, his game still lacks consistency.

"Nicklaus won most of his Majors by one or two shots and with a few exceptions, Tiger did pretty much the same. Most of the time he'd simply get into the mix and people would fold and he'd win. That sort of approach is going to deliver more success in the long term."

Other similarities between Miller and McIlroy were the way they displayed their precocious skills, even on Irish soil. As an 18-year-old, the American thrilled a select attendance when representing his college, Brigham Young, in a match against the Irish Universities at Portmarnock in 1965.

On the same trip, the visitors played a British Universities side at Royal Portrush where Miller's opponent was future Irish international, Frank McCarroll, who later told me: "He shot 70 to my 73 and was one of the finest putters I had ever seen."

A year later, the putter remained wonderfully productive when rounds of 70, 72, 84 and 74 for 290 earned a share of eighth place behind Billy Casper in the US Open at the Olympic Club in his native city of San Francisco. More recently, there was a memorable visit to The European Club which he recalled with affection.

Yet gazing out at the splendour of Augusta National, he was forced to admit: "I didn't win what they liked to call the annual spring putting contest here, because of the greens and maybe a little bit of nerves. I never could putt these greens like Casper or Tom Watson or Nicklaus.

"Though Rory's putting is very spotty, he proved in 2011 that he can handle them. And despite what happened in the Honda earlier this year [when McIlroy lost a play-off to Russell Henley], we know he has the ability not to let it go, if he gets into the mix on the weekend."

Though Miller was a serious critic of McIlroy's complete switch to Nike equipment at the beginning of last year, the assumption is that most of the difficulties accruing from that decision, are now in the past. "I just hope he's not seduced into trying other new things, like a swing-change or something like that," he said.

"I did exactly the same thing when I went from MacGregor to Wilson and switched balls. Basically, it threw me way back in my career. Almost ruined it. It's tough to change everything."

Then, with the sort of directness much loved of his television audiences, Miller concluded: "Rory's a guy who's got it. He was born to win. He just needs to keep doing what he was doing as a kid."

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