Saturday 24 March 2018

Preparing for a very different golfing world

Royal St George's will present a completely new challenge for Rory McIlroy, says Dermot Gilleece

Entirely in keeping with his status as championship favourite, Rory McIlroy has been preparing for Royal St George's the Nicklaus way. But the 22-year-old won't want to replicate the Bear's performances at his least favourite Open venue, where the great man carded a career-worst 83 and later missed two cuts.

Henry Longhurst once referred affectionately to the "'umps and 'ollows" which were liable to deflect a well-hit shot in any direction. For Nicklaus, however, the scene of this week's 140th Open Championship is where a player could drive his ball straight down the middle of the fairway, and lose it. And for Darren Clarke, it was the stark reality of a course with "no real landing areas on the fairways."

Yet another professional talked of a typical three-ball there as prompting "great drive", "unlucky" and "I don't believe it" as a sequence of player reactions to just the one shot. Meanwhile, the ancient Kent links are also associated with a memorable US Masters exchange when, anticipating his summer duties, an eager caddie asked his employer: "What about Sandwich?" To which Chi Chi Rodriguez replied: "Good thinking, senor. I'll have ham on rye."

Less than three weeks after capturing the US Open at Congressional, McIlroy caught his first sight of Royal St George's last Wednesday afternoon, when those notorious fairways stretched like crumpled ribbons against the serene backdrop of Pegwell Bay. There was hardly a breath of wind off the English Channel as he and caddie JP Fitzgerald negotiated the 18 holes in the company of coach Michael Bannon and Ian Garbutt from the player's management team.

Conditions were very different on Thursday morning, however, when the links bared its formidable teeth in a 25mph wind. Well satisfied to have experienced such informative conditions, McIlroy headed home to Belfast where he will work at his own practice facility, with the possibility of a round at Royal Portrush with pals, before returning to Sandwich at lunchtime on Tuesday.

Unless something dramatic occurs in the Scottish Open today, Ireland will have only four representatives in the Sandwich field. But with a line-up of McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Clarke, quality more than compensates for limited quantity. Only two of them played in the last staging there in 2003 when Harrington was tied 22nd and Clarke was tied 59th behind the shock American winner, Ben Curtis.

Louis Oosthuizen will be defending but the absence of Tiger Woods is obviously a blow, though not unexpected. And like Nicklaus, he won't have any endearing memories of Sandwich, given that his challenge in 2003 began with a triple-bogey seven on the first, where an ill-judged driver dispatched the ball deep into unforgiving rough, 20 yards right of the fairway. Some time later, a determined teenager found the errant sphere after an intensive search of the area and was rewarded with £7,500 from an internet sale of the first ball the then world number one had lost in a Major championship.

Though Woods rallied to a share of fourth place, the story of '03 was the collapse of Thomas Bjorn. Leading the Championship with three holes to play, the Dane carded a double-bogey five at the short 16th where he watched in horror as the ball twice came back towards his feet in a greenside bunker after failing by only inches to reach the putting surface. Clearly broken by the experience, Bjorn has never mounted a serious Major challenge since then and is a reserve for a place this week. Back in 1993, defending champion Nick Faldo was amazed at the decision to change the par-four fourth into a par five "when the Americans are doing the opposite." Somewhat belatedly, Faldo has got his wish, with the 495-yard fourth, characterised by an enormous bunker surrounded by railway sleepers, now playing as a four in an overall par of 70 encompassing 7,211 yards.

Other significant changes to the front nine, where players tee off towards the south, have been the lengthening of the short third by 30 yards to 240; an additional 32 yards on the par-five seventh, now 564, and the extending of the ninth to 412 yards from a new tee located left.

The stretch from the fourth to the 10th is where Christy O'Connor Jnr made seven successive birdies in a record-breaking 64 on the opening day back in 1985. In fact, he carded a total of 10 birdies and three bogeys in a round where his first par came at the 11th. Significantly, his last bogey was at the 15th which now measures 496 yards, so enhancing its status as one of the most difficult par fours in Major golf.

Even a drive of 300 yards guided clear of five punishing fairway bunkers, still leaves a 200-yard approach to a relatively small green which must be reached on the full, due to the three menacing bunkers protecting the front of the putting surface. It is the sort of challenge which emphasises the wisdom of O'Connor's strategy in 1985 when he said: "The most important thing I did was to isolate each hole as 18 separate challenges." The previous record, which gave its name to the Dunlop '65' golf ball, had been set by Henry Cotton in 1934. And the great

Englishman was present at the back of the media centre when O'Connor came in for interviews 51 years later. "Not a bad score for 17 holes, young man," he teased, much to the delight of the assembled scribes. "Thank you so much, Mr Cotton," was O'Connor's respectful reply.

That achievement and Harry Bradshaw's ball-in-the-bottle incident from the 1949 Open, have made Royal St George's a fruitful source of Irish stories. But one I remember with particular affection concerns a local scribe, John Whitbread, who retired a few years ago as sports editor of the Surrey Herald, and how he saved the eventual winner, Bill Rogers, from disqualification in 1981.

Rogers, incidentally, was an admirably tidy player whose success should give hope to similarly-talented challengers such as Luke Donald to follow in his footsteps this week.

As for his near-disqualification, Whitbread later explained: "On the morning of the first round of the Open, I was out and about looking for some early news when I happened to see Bill on the putting green. And when I went over to chat with him, it suddenly struck me that something was wrong. Looking at my time sheet, I saw that Bill was due off at 8.28am and it was now 8.27. 'You should be on the first tee,' I said to him. But he replied: 'No, I'm due off at 8.48'. So I showed him the time-sheet and he immediately rushed to the first tee where he was just in time to avoid a two-shot penalty. And, of course, he went on to win the Open."

Nineteen years later, Whitbread was on duty as usual for the Millennium staging of the Open at St Andrews. Rogers was also there, as a guest of the R and A, and on seeing Whitbread, he turned to his own son, who was with him on the trip, and said: "Come and say hello to a man who helped me win the British Open." With that, he signed a photograph for a golf writer who holds a rather special place in Open history.

To borrow the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, a lot of people have passed water under the bridge since then. Yet memories remain vivid of 1993 when coach Butch Harmon guided Greg Norman to a second Open triumph after a stirring battle with his nemesis, Faldo. The coach's skills so impressed Earl Woods that he thought it appropriate to have Harmon look after the interests of his gifted son, then 18 years old. In that instant, the shape of modern tournament golf was cast.

The Nicklaus approach to the Majors was to explore the venue in the quiet of the previous week, rather than play a build-up tournament. And he has advised McIlroy to do likewise. Harrington disagrees. "It takes time to get used to links golf, that's why the Scottish Open appeals to me," said the player whose Open triumphs of 2007 and 2008 both came directly after victories in the Irish Professional Championship at The European Club.

McDowell and Clarke also saw greater merit in playing Castle Stuart. But McIlroy has the considerable back-up of the country's finest, privately-owned practice facility. Built on 14 acres in the grounds of his home just south of Belfast, it proved to be a very effective part of his preparation for Congressional. Especially helpful was the putting confidence he gained on his own creeping-bent green which replicated the surfaces he negotiated so well en route to the US Open.

The facility was put together by John Clarkin, managing director of the Irish company, Turfgrass Consultancy, which was responsible for the original specifications of Chambers Bay where the US Open will be held in 2015. Clarkin is also the official agronomy consultant to this year's Solheim Cup at the Nicklaus-designed Killeen Castle in September.

Being fully operational only in late April meant it wasn't part of the player's preparation for Augusta National. But after the Congressional triumph, it is expected to provide McIlroy with a similar edge going to Royal St George's. "There are four greens, one of which is a mixture of A4 and A1, which is effectively the equivalent of the Augusta National greens," said Clarkin. "It's only just grown in and the speeds are increasing all the time."

He went on: "For the British Open, we decided to regulate the speed of another, meadowgrass (poa annua) green just below 11.0 on the Stimpmeter because this is the sort of pace we're expecting the R and A to settle on. If they were any faster, pin positions on the undulating surfaces would be quite limited in strong winds.

"We also decided to firm things up quite significantly so that balls don't necessarily create a pitch-mark, again with a view to replicating conditions at Sandwich. And for obvious reasons, we've decided to let the outer rough areas of fescue grow a bit. Another help for Rory should be the fescue approaches we have to three greens."

Regarding the actual construction of the facility, Clarkin referred to an original driving area with a tee at 290 yards. "We had to revise that when Rory's drives were carrying the boundary hedge," he said. "Now the tee is back at 340." Another feature is that the greens can be approached from two different directions, to facilitate wind coming off the left or right side.

Meanwhile, Faldo believes that the ability to move the ball both ways should enhance the prospects of McDowell, who failed to survive final qualifying at Littlestone for the 2003 Open. "You'll have to work out the bounces, especially if it's firm and fast, which seems likely," he said. "It will be necessary in some cases to land approach shots 40 yards short and bumble them onto the greens. It's going to test a player's patience as well as his skill."

Never was this more evident than in 1981 when, as shadows lengthened on the opening day, we could hardly believe our eyes as Nicklaus was made to look like a club hacker on the way to an 83.

Typically, he refused to blame anyone but himself, though it followed news from the US that his son, Steven, had been involved in a motoring incident.

Asked afterwards in the locker-room what the implications of the score were, he famously replied: "It means I'll have to shoot 65 or 66 to make the cut." Almost precisely to order, the Bear proceeded to card a second-round 66 and made the cut by two strokes.

These are the standards McIlroy has now embraced. He knows that in the absence of Woods, the level of expectation this week will be all the greater. Yet according to his manager Chubby Chandler the player will view such a prospect as "simply in line with what he expects of himself."

In short, McIlroy now inhabits a different golfing world. And he knows it.

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