Friday 22 February 2019

Rory McIlroy won't be denied monster $11m jackpot

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the eighth hole at the East Lake Golf Club
Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the eighth hole at the East Lake Golf Club

Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy can tomorrow round off the greatest summer of his life by hitting the biggest jackpot in world sport, the $11.44m bonanza which awaits the Ulsterman if - sorry, that should be when - he wins the Tour Championship and lands the FedEx Cup.

The world No 1 flashed a clear signal of intent to his rivals in the elite 29-man field at this weekend's FedEx Cup finale in East Lake, Atlanta, as he applied a stunning birdie-birdie finish to his second-round 65.

Playing his eighth tournament in 10 tumultuous weeks which included a hat-trick of two Major titles and a first World Golf Championship, McIlroy blew away any talk of fatigue, mental or otherwise as he surged to within two strokes of leader Billy Horschel which puts him in a tie for second alongside Jason Day and Chris Kirk.

The sobering fact his rivals must digest entering the final 36 holes of the PGA Tour season is that McIlroy has yet to click into top gear at East Lake.

But as the thrilling prospect of adding two more prestige trophies - not forgetting all the cash that comes with the Tour Championship ($1.44m) and FedEx Cup ($10m) - should provide enough adrenaline to send the world's hottest golfer into overdrive.

After a summer of stellar achievement, sparked when he won the European Tour's showpiece BMW PGA Championship a week after terminating his engagement to Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy insisted: "Now I really want to put the icing on the cake."

Formidable

Having devoted himself entirely to golf, McIlroy has at last stepped up and succeeded Tiger Woods as the world's most formidable golfer and his recent successes send him into the weekend at East Lake feeling he has everything to gain and nothing to lose.

"I'm the one that's got two Majors this year," he said. "I'm the one that's had the great season. Those are the guys trying to cap off a great season for themselves. So, no matter what happens here, it's going to be okay. I just want to apply the finish this season deserves."

As for that spectacular climax to his second round, McIlroy said: "It really was a good way to finish. It started out when I made a good par putt at 16 to keep the momentum of the round going, and then I did the exact same at 17 as I did on Thursday.

"Eighteen was a bit of a bonus. I had a decent shot in there but it was a tricky putt up that hill with a lot of right to left breaks."

Inevitably, McIlroy has shown signs of fatigue in the past seven days. Those two four-putts at the par-three 12th during the BMW Championship last Saturday and Sunday, for example, while Thursday's opening 69 at East Lake was a real grind.

Again yesterday, McIlroy's timing occasionally appeared to be just a frisson off. Okay, that's on the evidence of your correspondent's uneducated, low-definition, bloodshot eyeball but when that clubhead travels at 122 mph-plus, even the tiniest deviation can render fallible the infallible.

A case in point was McIlroy's 317-yard tee shot at the par-four fourth. At impact, those clustered around the tee either cackled or sighed in admiration but the man himself watched after the ball anxiously; for the second day in a row, it leaked a tad right into the second fairway bunker.

This time, however, the ball plugged under the lip and had to be blasted, like rock out of a quarry, onto the fairway just 10 yards away. With 121 yards to the hole, McIlroy hit a relatively tame wedge to 22 feet and missed the putt on the high side.

That bogey cancelled out the beautiful birdie he had made at the 212-yard third but McIlroy no longer pouts at adversity. He got that shot back at another par-three, the sixth, after hitting a majestic 197-yard five-iron over the water to eight feet.

Interestingly, it was his second birdie in two days at a difficult hole which tripped him up on Tour Championship Sunday in 2012 as a closing 74 left him tied 10th in the tournament and second to Brandt Snedeker in the FedEx Cup.

When he holed from inside four feet for birdie at seven yesterday, a Tiger-like charge seemed to be on the cards.

However, another indifferent wedge shot denied him a decent chance at eight, while a poor drive into the right-hand rough at nine required him to lay up to 101 yards. From there, he overshot the green, losing a shot to the other contenders with a par five.

In short, though McIlroy played the outward half in two-under, he wasn't running quite like the clockwork of high summer.

McIlroy admitted he has not driven his ball to the same standard recently, saying: "It's not as good as it was about a month ago. Whether that's due to how much golf I've played and maybe there's a few tired swings in there, but I'm still driving the ball well.

Comfortable

"I had a great warm-up this morning and from the first tee shot, I felt a lot more comfortable with my swing. I still missed a few shots out there but nowhere as many as I did yesterday."

After holing from nine feet for birdie at the par-four 12th, he pulled off a series of dramatic par saves, one out of a spectator's pocket at 14 and another from a greenside trap at 16 before bringing his second round to a crescendo with those two birdies.

Leader Billy Horschel, winner at Cherry Hills last week and playing his sixth tournament in a row, has no fear of fatigue.

"Listen, this is the FedEx Cup Playoffs. If you can't get yourself in shape and get up for it on a daily basis, then why are you playing this game? We're all tired but we've all just gotta figure out how to put it out of our mind," said Horschel, who went head to head with McIlroy during America's 2007 Walker Cup victory at Royal Co Down.

So committed is Horschel to winning this week, he and wife Brittany, due to give birth to their first child in the next fortnight, have agreed that if she goes into labour this weekend, he's not to be told if he's on the course.

"We have decided that I will just keep playing because $10m is a lot of money and I'm not going to pass that by. I'll just fly home after the round, spend some time with them, and fly back (to East Lake) a couple of hours later." Now that's commitment.

Tour Championship, live, Sky Sports 4, 5.30pm

Irish Independent

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