Thursday 18 January 2018

No gain without some pain

There are echoes of Tom Watson in how Rory McIlroy faced up to his meltdown, says Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

A s a BBC camera focused on the 72nd hole at St Andrews in the 1970 Open, the hapless Doug Sanders stretched out his blade in a desperate attempt at somehow stopping a 30-inch putt from going ruinously right of the target. After a barely audible gasp, commentator Henry Longhurst was heard to utter the immortal words: "There but for the grace of God . . ."

Countless golfers of all creeds and classes would have echoed that phrase while Rory McIlroy's Masters challenge was unravelling under the pressure of Sunday's back-nine at Augusta National. And as a reflection of the tournament's most celebrated collapse, when Greg Norman fell to Nick Faldo in 1996, McIlroy seemed to command disproportionate attention over the splendid winner, Charl Schwartzel.

Observing the South African's majestic performance prompted in me one of those moments of wisdom in hindsight. In January 2005, on the terrace of the Lost City Course in Sun City, I was introduced to a 20-year-old described by Darren Clarke as "an awesome talent; arguably the best young player in the world". It was Schwartzel, inseparable even then from his pal, Louis Oosthuizen, a former World Junior champion.

Less than three years previously, on a memorable weekend in May, Oosthuizen had captured the Irish Amateur Open Strokeplay Championship at Royal Dublin while Schwartzel was winning the English equivalent for the Brabazon Trophy. Now, to the surprise of nobody who has closely watched their progress, both are the holders of Major professional titles.

Two years ago, American scribes were affronted by the idea of McIlroy, a player they had never heard of, being in the top 20 in the world. Now, another golfing nonentity, by their estimation, has been so bold as to capture one of their most coveted titles.

"What's going on?" asked Mike Lopresti in USA Today. "When OUR Jack Nicklaus won his last US Masters 25 years ago, there were nine international golfers who made the cut. Almost as many were in the LEAD Sunday." Schwartzel gently attempted to divert them from what appeared to be excessive navel-gazing by suggesting: "America is big, but the world is bigger."

Nor were there any comforting words here for Tiger Woods, who was seen to have failed in his national duty when a sizzling front-nine of 31, came to an unexpected halt. From my standpoint, however, Woods's outward surge was largely the product of extraordinary will, which couldn't hope to deliver ultimate triumph against a background of badly bruised confidence.

Yet most US observers have been kind to McIlroy. An exception was Cameron Morfit of GOLF Magazine, who wrote: "In other news, the Augusta Chronicle headline last week, 'It's Lefty's to Lose,' has prompted a formal inquiry from the Irish Golf Union (sic) over who owns the rights and privileges of losing the world's most prestigious tournament."

Far deeper understanding came from Andy North in comparing McIlroy to the young Tom Watson, who also had a problem with winning on the big occasion. "I choked plenty before I finally won," Watson admitted later in his career, by which stage he had amassed eight Major titles. North, a long-time friend of Watson's with two US Opens to his credit, was at Augusta commentating for ESPN. When we talked last week, he referred specifically to the 1974 US Open at Winged Foot for which he, himself, failed to qualify. That was when 24-year-old Watson led the field by one stroke after 54 holes, only to card a closing 79 which left him fifth behind the winner Hale Irwin.

In April 1975, Watson was tied eighth in the Masters where his closing 73 -- "if memory serves, he was in the water on 15" -- was the worst score by the any of the top 17 finishers. Three months later, he captured the Open at Carnoustie. North, incidentally, still rates that Masters as the best-ever because Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Irwin filled the top four places.

"Everybody admired Tom's work ethic, so his failures became a real talking point on tour," North added. "And he and I talked about it. Then things gradually began to turn around when Byron Nelson became his coach. Rory is unbelievably gifted and I see clear parallels between him and the young Watson. Absolutely. Tom came out as a real, raw talent whereas Rory is probably more refined. And their swings are different and the equipment is different. But I see a lot of the Watson make-up in Rory. He, too, is a great competitor and it clearly hurts him to lose.

"It was obvious to me from the time he three-putted the first on Sunday that we were seeing a different Rory from the opening three days. His tempo was significantly quicker. But I thought he handled it great and he'll move on, just like Tom did.

"Golf can be a very cruel game and there's been no greater example of how cruel it can be than two years ago at the British Open where Tom played better than anybody all week long. He even hit the perfect shot at the last hole, and it just didn't work out. Yet, as he did early in his career, he dealt with it, this time in playing a practice round for the Senior British Open the next day.

"Rory has a great opportunity to emerge from this as a better golfer in every respect. And I already love the way he plays. Guys from my generation really appreciate his golf swing because there's freedom in it. It doesn't look mechanical like a lot of the guys who play today. And I loved the fact that before the Masters he worked with his teacher who then went home. I get so sick and tired of players showing up with 10 guys around them, each one dictating what to do."

Then North, who ranked among the great putters of his generation, made the interesting observation: "Obviously Rory had a torrid time on the greens on Sunday but Augusta will do that to you. I think he's a good putter. And I've no doubt he'll become a better one."

How could he be so positive about McIlroy's prospects? "Because of the way he handled Sunday's experience," replied North. "Most guys blame their nutritionist, their trainer, coach, their wife or their dog. Anybody but themselves. Rory blamed nobody but himself. That's what you need to do to become a great player.

"It was right that he and his caddie (JP Fitzgerald) were left to devise Sunday's strategy for themselves. A lot of people disagree, but that's how we did it. Some things in golf don't change and one of them is the fact that you're out there on your own. Nicklaus, Watson and Trevino did just fine without an entourage. You succeed, that's great. You fail, you figure it out and try to do better the next time. Trust me, Rory is going to be all right. He'll take responsibility and figure things out. He could even win in the next few weeks."

If North's generation taught us anything, it was the truth in the simple cliché, no gain without pain. And for McIlroy, following in the footsteps of Tom Watson can't be such a forbidding prospect.

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