Sport Golf

Sunday 17 December 2017

Rory McIlroy gets a chance to learn from the great Tom Watson

Rory McIlroy. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy. Photo: Getty Images

Oliver Brown

Rory McIlroy meets Tom Watson: what an inspired idea for a documentary. But today it becomes the most engrossing US Open pairing, as the unassuming young gunslinger of golf goes toe-to-toe with the game's great sage.

This should be the perfect draw for McIlroy, exposing him to the art of blunting Pebble's ferocity with accuracy and invention, rather than length, as Watson showed last year at Turnberry.

The round will be rich in resonant moments, as when he and Watson turn back towards the Pacific at the short 17th, where in 1982 his playing partner lined up an absurdly difficult chip, said to caddie Bruce Edwards "I'm going to hole this" – and did, to Jack Nicklaus's enduring chagrin.

There are those convinced that Watson, having revived his peerless feel for playing in the teeth of a gale, is not done yet on his return to the Monterey peninsula. RJ Harper, the general manager at Pebble Beach, said: "What we saw at Turnberry was not the last of Tom Watson competing at a major championship. This course is made for him."

Rory, take note. You might feel you are accompanying an old man for 18 holes of ceremony but you could be the chaperone to the champion.

McIlroy, as a precocious historian of his sport, has not just watched the videotape of Watson's miraculous chip, but tried it himself. He noticed that Tom Kite was faced with a similar shot en route to the title in 1992, and thought he had better prepare.

"I'm very excited about it," he said of today's mentoring session. "I played nine holes with Tom at the Masters this year in a practice round and he still hits it as good as anyone out here. It's definitely a great draw for me. It should help me relax a little bit.

"He has won around here and I might pick up a few things in the first two days that I can take into the weekend. You never know."

As if the McIlroy-Watson blend were not intoxicating enough, it becomes headier still with the addition of Ryo Ishikawa, the 19 year-old pursued at every tour stop by half the photographers in Japan.

The two youngsters are still dining out on the tale of a fanciful weekend last month, when McIlroy's 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina was just shaded by Ishikawa's exploits on the other side of the world.

Ishikawa, labelled the 'bashful prince' by his swelling band of admirers, had swept to victory in Nagoya with a round of 58. The score was so rare that even grizzled statisticians had to double-check that it had never been recorded in competition before.

But the teenager from Saitama, who has struggled to have the same impact on the US circuit, can absorb lessons from Watson in course management – and from McIlroy, a winner on both sides of the Atlantic, and generous in his admiration.

"If I were to turn on my TV and watch anyone, I would like to watch Ryo," McIlroy said. "I like the way he plays, how he carries himself. He's a great role model to a lot of people."

Be in no doubt that McIlroy has the game to tame Pebble. Few can match the crisp purity of his ball-striking, an invaluable asset when the greens on this course are no bigger than the average dining table. His accomplished performance at Bethpage Black last year showed he mettle, too, for the US Open's draining demands.

"This is a spectacular golf course – I think the way they have set it up this year is really good. If you just miss the fairway you've got a good chance of hitting it on the green, but you miss it by a little bit more and you're going to struggle. The main thing in any US Open is just patience, and not really letting anything bother you.

"You have to expect that you're going to have bad holes here and there. What I've learned from last year is that par in a US Open is never too far away."

You can almost hear Watson, always the master of his own mindset, uttering the same words.

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