Wednesday 22 November 2017

Red-hot Stenson in prime position to seize Dubai glory

Assured Swede hitting stride as Irish contingent fail to turn up the heat, writes Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

Dermot Gilleece

With the calm assurance of a confident leader, Henrik Stenson birdied four of the last five holes and warned his challengers in the DP World Tour Championship: "I'm not going to quit now." But Rory McIlroy was among those who maintained the fight with a third-round 68 yesterday for a share of eighth place.

Graeme McDowell, who needs to beat Stenson to win the money title, remained two strokes further back in a tie for 14th. He held out very little chance of overhauling the "best player in the world during the last six months".

The threat from Ian Poulter, however, is a lot more significant, given the Englishman's sparkling 65 to get within four strokes. "I'm up for it; I can have some fun with Henrik tomorrow," he said with typical bravado. But the additional warning that his rival shouldn't look back brought only the gentle rebuke, "I keep looking forward", from the Swede.

Meanwhile, after sinking an eight-footer for a birdie on the long 18th, McIlroy shed further light on the extravagant notion of the US PGA Championship coming to Royal Portrush during the next decade. Apparently, the venue was not specified in a chat he had earlier this year with Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America. "We talked about Ireland," he said. "Ted is a great fan of Ireland."

Several forward tees on the Earth Course facilitated some sparkling scoring, notably from last week's Turkish Airlines winner Victor Dubuisson, who had 11 birdies in a 64. But Stenson's 67 exemplified the assurance which made him the first European winner of this year's FedEx Cup and a jackpot of $11.4m.

He has already received $9m of the FedEx bonus while the remaining $1m has gone into his pension fund. Victory today would bring him an additional €3.4m for the year on this side of the Atlantic.

During earlier years on Tour, his quirky sense of humour was seen to mask admirable competitive steel. A memorable example came on the Friday of the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club when, on being asked if he expected to be playing in Saturday's fourballs, the Swede replied: "Like he said on Monty Python, I know nothing." Which was a charming mixture of two TV comedy shows, one of them involving the hapless waiter, Manuel, from Fawlty Towers.

We can assume that a sense of humour didn't hurt him in February 2009 when the Allen Stanford financial scandal broke while Stenson was preparing for the Accenture World Match Play at Dove Mountain, Tucson. "Not all my money," was as much as he would reveal regarding the amount he had invested with Stanford. "But I have quite a big part of my own savings and investments with them."

The general belief is that the Swede lost as much as $8m. Yet he later insisted: "I wouldn't say it had much effect on my golf." And by way of proving the point, he proceeded to beat Poulter by four strokes for victory in the Players Championship less than three months later, for a welcome reward of $1.71m.

Ironically, it was a further two years on before his game went into serious decline and he actually failed to qualify for Dubai. But Stenson didn't remain in the shadows for long. After missing the Ryder Cup miracle at Medinah, he became a winner once more this time 12 months ago, when a three-stroke victory in the South African Open signalled a spectacular climb back to prominence.

Damien McGrane isn't in Dubai. A 28-tournament season ended for him in decidedly flat fashion last Sunday in the Turkish Airlines Open, where he finished a dispiriting 70th (€6,985) in a limited field of 78 competitors. It certainly wasn't the way he had planned to end his tenth successive year on Tour as a fully exempt player.

"I'm trying hard, but it's not working for me at the moment," he said yesterday. "My scoring in Turkey was pathetic; very disappointing. After getting into the tournament out of nowhere as the last man, it was desperate to have made absolutely no use of the opportunity. That took a few days to get over."

Earlier in his Tour career, McGrane was a noted dispenser of home-spun philosophy, like "golf is sometimes like a bag of Bertie Bassetts; you don't know which one is coming out next." There is more of an edge to his patter these days, reflecting the hard grind of a punishing pursuit in which he ended the current season with earnings of €342,165 to be 82nd in the money list.

It took him a few days at his home in Kells to finally shake off the disappointment of Turkey. Then he began looking with typical optimism towards the next challenge. In fact, the new season starts for him later this week in the South African Open at Glendower GC, followed by the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.

"At 42, I've no wish to look too far ahead," he went on. "When I made my last visit to the Qualifying School in 2003, I'd probably have smiled if you told me I'd keep my card 10 years in a row. Sure, it's a simple game that you love when you play it well. But when you're struggling, it's hard to see the attraction of it." This, from the quintessential journeyman who can boast career earnings of €4.67m, including victory in the 2008 Volvo China Open.

His friendship with Peter Lawrie has been a significant part of that golfing odyssey. Given that they are room-mates on Tour, McGrane took more than a passing interest in Lawrie's recent scramble to retain his card, which was secured only in the last event, the Handa Perth International. That's where he made his first cut in six tournaments and secured a share of 18th for priceless prize money of €16,523.

"I wasn't in Perth but in earlier tournaments, I'd often be watching the scoreboards to see how Peter was doing," he said. "Hoping he'd do well and keep his card without a struggle. But we didn't talk about it over dinner. Professionals don't cry on each other's shoulders. Not in my experience. You accept responsibility for your actions, which makes it pointless to go whingeing to somebody else, as if they can help or take a share of the blame."

With average drives of 280 yards, McGrane would be among the more moderate hitters on Tour, acutely conscious of the need for tidy play around the greens.

"It's certainly intimidating for me to be looking at strong, young players and the way they can hit it out there. At the end of the day, I might reach a par five with two of my very best, whereas there are guys (who) can drive it into the rough and still put it on the green. It's bloody competitive. So you've got to be on top of your game to get up that leaderboard. And you need to do something special to grab a win."

Reflecting the mood of the top challengers in Dubai, he concluded: "That's why we're all on Tour. We're all chasing our own dreams."

Sunday Independent

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