Thursday 22 August 2019

Rory McIlroy reasserts his determination to transform Irish Open into one of biggest events in the world

World No 3 committed to leaving his stamp on his national open as part of his golfing legacy

Rory McIlroy watches his drive from the 5th tee box at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Rory McIlroy watches his drive from the 5th tee box at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Rory McIlroy: ‘I’ll continue to try and get players over as I did at Royal County Down.’ Photo: Brendan Moran

Dermot Gilleece

In a remarkable pledge of support, Rory McIlroy is committed to raising the Irish Open to unprecedented levels as a truly significant world event. It's a vision inspired by stirring images painted by his father of trips south from Holywood 30 years ago to see Seve Ballesteros in action.

More immediately, there is a determination to challenge seriously for the €4m Dubai Duty Free-sponsored event at The K Club next May after missing three successive cuts since a share of tenth place at Royal Portrush in 2012.

"From the experience of Royal County Down, I realise I don't need to be involved in so many [Foundation] engagements during tournament week," he said.

On familiar ground at Facebook, Dublin three days ago, the newly-crowned European Tour Golfer of the Year talked frankly about his achievements after eight full years on tour, and his plans for the coming season. In the latter context, he is looking to greater emotional stability from his engagement to Erica Stoll, while hoping that laser eye surgery which he underwent earlier this month will deliver an enhanced dividend with the blade.

Offering some serious food for thought over the festive season, McIlroy said: "Given their close proximity to the airport and the city, there's no reason why we couldn't get 150,000 people at an Irish Open at Portmarnock, if they were to change their gender rules. The European Tour see 100,000 as a magic number, but why does it have to be that. Phoenix gets 600,000."

By its very nature, golf can paint captivating pictures. And the notion of a K Club staging had McIlroy thinking back nine years, when he was holder of the West of Ireland and Irish Close amateur titles.

"I remember back in September 2006, heading to Holywood Golf Club at about 5.30 in the morning and getting on a bus bound for the Ryder Cup," he said. "Our target must be to re-create such happenings - from every golf club in the country."

This was delivered with a passion that some observers seem to think has been lacking from certain of his tournament endeavours. For instance, there was criticism of his reaction to a potentially ruinous, blocked tee-shot at the short 71st in Dubai on November 22. "Oh my goodness!" he exclaimed, with the politeness of a guest dropping a glass at a garden party.

When I raised the point, he wondered: "What would you have expected me to say?" With so much at stake in a decidedly tight battle with Andy Sullivan, I imagined something like "Oh bollox!" would have been more appropriate.

He laughed heartily while replying: "I've been fined enough already."

Much more seriously, he made the interesting observation: "I wanted to get it out of my mind as quickly as possible and not allow anger to affect my next shot."

This is a measure of the competitive maturity he has acquired since a memorable meeting I had with himself and Pádraig Harrington in the Harrington home at this time eight years ago. The 18-year-old was somewhat apprehensive about the impending challenge while Harrington was the proud holder of the Claret Jug from Carnoustie, the previous July.

"Eight years seems a long time back," he mused. "At that stage, I was simply happy to have my Tour card while focusing on trying to get into the top-60 for Valderrama [Volvo Masters]. I remember it as quite an adjustment, being on tour and playing in far-flung places I'd never been to before.

"Going to Crans [Switzerland], I was 90th in the Order of Merit and 205th in the world at the end of August. And when I went on to end the year at 39th in the world, I remember proudly ringing Michael Bannon [his coach] from South Africa and telling him I was in the Majors."

When I wondered if four Major victories since then had been enough, he seemed slightly affronted.

"Was that enough? In eight years?" There was a pause. "Yes," he asserted. "It's definitely enough. There are a lot of unknowns . . . the world we live in and the profession I chose.

"People have very short memories. Really short memories. I saw a thing on this morning: How many Majors should Tiger have won? They didn't appreciate that he had won 14. I suppose it's the way of the world."

In the Harrington abode, the owner talked about the crucial skill of putting. "What's great about Rory is that he knows there's a weakness in his putting and he's working on it," he said.

"I believe people who putt well, people like me, have a genuine want, a necessity to get the golf ball into the hole. I will the ball into the hole more than other people. I'd be thinking I had to find a way of getting it there, at all costs."

McIlroy studied Harrington's putting with more than a little interest. "The putts that Pádraig held (sic) coming down the stretch at Oakland Hills to win the PGA convinced me that I had to see who he was working with," he recalled. "That was in the middle of '08, when I linked up with Paul Hurrion and I was with him for two years.

"Technically, I feel my putting has come on a lot over the last few years, but there has definitely been room for improvement in my green reading. I'm hoping the laser treatment with make me a little bit sharper, especially in the 20- to 30-metre range. Reading greens is, of course, only part of putting. Obviously there's starting on the line you want, and speed is so important. I don't think [surgery] will bring about much change in how I executive the stroke."

Looking towards next season, he sees scheduling as being absolutely critical to realising his objectives. "Everything seems to be so jam-packed in the summer," he said. "With the Majors being so close together and the Olympic Games and the FedEx Cup after that. Then there's the Ryder Cup. It's going to be a year when a lot of guys will be pacing themselves a bit before that big summer run."

In this context, he is including Los Angeles as an additional event before the Masters, largely because of the great things he has heard about Riviera CC and its legendary link with Ben Hogan.

"Apart from the Irish Open, which is obviously big on my agenda, it's all about the Majors, though I would also be looking to make a good contribution in the Ryder Cup," he acknowledged.

But what about the Olympics, which was the source of so much controversy for him before June 2014, when he decided to represent Ireland? "Though I'd love to win Olympic gold, it's not as if we're going to get the full buzz of the event like the athletes will over a span of three weeks after preparing for four years," he said. "We golfers will be in and out in a week."

He went on: "As things stand, Rio promises to be a great experience. Golf will need to be back in the Olympics for a while, however, before it becomes a bigger event for us, as has been the case with tennis."

Meanwhile, a measure of his commitment to the Irish Open, extending to 2018 through the Rory Foundation, is that the entire staff of Team McIlroy will be geared to marketing the event, at their employer's expense. "For me, this has never been about money; it's about trying to leave my stamp on the event as my legacy," he said.

"As for personal memories, I can go back only as far as Sergio [Garcia] winning at Druids Glen in 1999 and Patrik Sjoland at Ballybunion the following year. But before that, my dad would have filled me with stories about Seve and (Bernhard) Langer and wonderful things at Portmarnock."

He continued: "It's really helpful that the European Tour share my vision. The objective now is to try and make the Irish Open not only one of the biggest events on the European Tour, but one of the biggest in the world. For me, it's kind of like killing two birds with the one stone.

"While I try to give something back to Irish golf, my Foundation can help people who desperately need our help.

"So, with a view to creating a great atmosphere, I'll continue to try and get players over as I did at Royal County Down. And to push the prize fund further up. And to have it on really good courses.

"The K Club is special for having hosted the Ryder Cup but further down the line, I would like to see it return to links courses. When people come to Ireland, they want to play links golf. That's my vision for the Irish Open."

After McIlroy had been listening intently in Harrington's kitchen, the master turned to me and remarked with a half smile: "He's very cool. Rory knows what he's doing."

Which, among other things eight years on, should mean a really bright future for the Irish Open.

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