Wednesday 21 February 2018

Rory McIlroy lifted by moment of magic

Ulsterman just one shot off pace in Turkey after glorious eagle sets up third successive 67

Rory McIlroy played the shot of the tournament at the Turkish Airlines Open
Rory McIlroy played the shot of the tournament at the Turkish Airlines Open

Dermot Gilleece

An explosive homeward journey containing an eagle and three birdies swept Rory McIlroy right into contention for the $7m Turkish Airlines Open here on the Montgomerie Course yesterday. It delivered a third successive 67 to leave him 15 under par, one stroke behind joint leaders Victor Dubuisson and Jaco Van Zyl.

Hot autumn sunshine was casting soothing shadows through elegant pines when McIlroy delivered a moment of glorious magic. Faced with an approach of 229 yards on the 564-yard 13th and with a gentle breeze from the left, he hit a four iron high and arrow-straight to four feet from the pin.

Yet with typical modesty, he described the shot of the tournament so far as "a little lucky to stop where it did".

He added: "It was very pleasing to finish the way I did, given that I felt lethargic out there today. I had to dig in deep."

Anxious to win again after a summer blighted by a damaged ankle, he proved himself worthy of the star billing which had eager spectators following his every move.

He then talked afterwards about a third surgery last Wednesday for Tiger Woods. "I think any time you sort of touch your back, it's tough," he said. "It looks like it's a long road to recovery for him.

"I just hope he gets better, not just to play golf, where he is missed by the game in general, but just for everyday life. He has that mindset that he can overcome things and he's overcome things before. So I wouldn't put it past him. But as I said, I think it's a long road ahead."

While struggling on Friday as McIlroy's partner, Shane Lowry conceded that it was somewhat discomforting "to see Rory taking the flags out". In different company yesterday, a 69 left him again at odds with himself, but for very different reasons.

A run of three threes - par, birdie, eagle - from the second lifted him to nine under for the tournament, but he then blocked a five iron into water on the short fifth to make a double-bogey on the most difficult hole on the course. "After the way I played the long fourth, with a six iron to 20 feet, that double came as a real momentum killer," he said afterwards. "So, I'm off to the range again."

With typical candour, Graeme McDowell talked of seeing danger signs in his game 12 months ago. "It was very important to arrest the slide as quickly as possible, but I'm afraid I didn't do a very good job of it," he admitted. And the problem remains, on the evidence of a 73 in which his body language was decidedly negative.

As the Rugby World Cup drew to a close, McIlroy was among those who saw better times ahead for Ireland. "I feel I know what it takes to reach number one and from what I've witnessed in the Irish camp, I can see a future team doing it," he said. "It strikes me that we now have the necessary resources at all levels, including a great coaching structure. Then there's a lot of great guys on the backroom staff and you have to think that we will have a strong stream of talent coming through in the years ahead.

"The game is being treated so professionally; a lot more so than it was as recently as 10 years ago. So, I believe I'll one day see Ireland go all the way in the World Cup. I believe they're capable of winning it. Absolutely." A keen fan of all aspects of international sport, McIlroy committed himself 18 months ago to representing Ireland in next summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, he has become a very visible fan of Ulster rugby while declaring himself "a massive Ireland supporter".

"I've been fortunate in getting to know a few of the players and they're all really, really good lads," he said. "It's a project I definitely want to get behind."

Support for Ireland's recent World Cup challenge involved his physical presence with the squad after the final pool victory over France at the Millennium Stadium. "I went into the camp that evening and had a bit of dinner with them [at Celtic Manor, where he was a member of the victorious 2010 Ryder Cup team]," he said. "Then I spent the Monday morning with them on the practice range."

That was where memorable images were recorded of McIlroy highly amused by the sight of Luke Fitzgerald, driver in hand, making a wild swipe at the ball. Had the experience prompted him to give the Ireland centre a few lessons? "No," came the reply. "Not at the minute. But that little golfing episode obviously didn't affect the tremendous contribution Luke made in the Argentina game."

Reflecting on what became a broken dream for all Ireland rugby fans, McIlroy said: "The warning signs were there when France had 60 points put on them by New Zealand. That would never have happened in normal circumstances. You could see the French were knackered from the physical toll our match had taken. And so many of our guys getting injured became a huge problem for us.

"It was such a disappointment, yet something I was thrilled to be involved with, if only in a small way."

McIlroy has also been calculating a more insidious cost from a playing schedule which will see him challenging for two further events this year - the HSBC Champions event starting on Thursday in Shanghai and the climactic DP World Tour Championship in Dubai (November 19-22). "As things stand, you have to be out of your bed 270 nights a year," he said.

"The combined duration of flights amounts to more than two weeks a year. These are crazy numbers and though I'm enjoying it and will continue to do it for a while, there's no way I could sustain that for the rest of my career."

As things stand, he will be taking next month and most of January off. Yet he has no problem with his European commitments, which include hosting the Irish Open at The K Club next May prior to the Olympics in Rio.

On a broader level, Ireland has played a significant role in the development of golf in Turkey, largely through the design skills of David Jones. Back in 1990, the Turkish government turned state land over to the development of golf courses and hotels to boost tourism in the coastal area of Antalya.

"I designed four of those courses," said Jones, who had embarked into golf course architecture towards the end of a tournament career. "David Feherty and I collaborated on the first one, the National Golf Club. Then I went on to do three others on my own."

Other, more prominent international practitioners followed suit, among them Peter Thomson, whose company was responsible for the Carya resort which was officially opened at this time in 2008 and boasts the first fully floodlit stretch in Europe. In a deal announced last week, it is to play host to the Turkish Airlines Open for the next three years.

The great Australian compares the tree-lined heathland stretch of 7,186 yards to celebrated courses such as Sunningdale in England's south east, where he enjoyed much success during his playing days. And it is planned to build a further 23 courses in the Antalya area to satisfy a growing tourist industry which generated about €200m last year.

Ahmet Agaoglu, president of the Turkish Golf Federation, said: "Domestically, we expect our golfing population to reach 10,000 this year. To that end, at our headquarters at Classis GC (outside Istanbul), tuition and course access is free to Turkish players at junior level.

"With this and a new four-year programme, we expect to produce a candidate for the 2020 Olympic Games and European Tour events as well." All of which represents admirable progress for an organisation which came into existence as recently as 1996.

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