Friday 17 November 2017

Rory needs to rage against the dying of his inner fight

McIlroy could do with a tough mentor if he's to become competitive, writes Dermot Gilleece

Under strangely friendly skies, there was no dramatic surge from Irish back-markers who, in better circumstances, would have been ideally equipped to make the most of moving day in the Open Championship. In fact, the first playing partnership of Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy at this level became a decidedly low-key affair.

They actually came together in a tournament situation in Memphis last month, when McIlroy was three strokes better than his colleague in a second-round 65. On this occasion, however, Harrington did the better score with a 70 to a 73, though it didn't seem to be of any real consequence to either player.

With unusual succinctness, the Dubliner said: "I hit a beautiful tee-shot on the first and a beautiful second shot on the second. That was the end of my day." In truth, he felt he had stolen a decent score after a decidedly untidy round.

And what about his young friend? "You watch every shot he hits, no doubt about it," Harrington replied. "Everything about his game is of interest." Then he added with a grin: "Not that I'm prepared to give my opinion..."

McIlroy's performance was especially disappointing when set against a similar slide at Royal St George's 12 months ago. While any golfer can have a poor day, particularly disconcerting was the manner in which he appeared to give up the fight. One thinks of the innate pride in his craft which forced Seve Ballesteros, for instance, to battle for a 79 rather than shoot an 80.

As he put it afterwards: "I was up for it this morning, trying to go out there and post a good score. But after playing the front nine like I did (three over par), you're just trying to shoot the best score you can out there. And for me today, that was only a 73." Quite revealing was that he had eight birdies for his first 25 holes and one for the remaining 29.

The problem for McIlroy is that there doesn't seem to be anybody to help him overcome this weakness in his competitive make-up. If he were in a team sport, his manager could urge or cajole him to greater heights for the overall betterment of the club. Or team-mates would exert peer pressure which can be even more effective.

It is only fair to remind ourselves that, despite his prodigious talent, the player has only recently turned 23, with all the emotional shortcomings which that implies. And as a leading tournament golfer already financially secure for life, he is very much his own person who may feel responsible only to himself.

This, however, is to overlook his responsibilities as a paid entertainer. And while he recently acknowledged the problem, it was done in a manner suggesting remedial action was being taken.

"It is something I definitely did in the past," he said. "If things haven't gone my way, the fight goes out of me pretty quickly. And that's something I'm working on and something that I'm trying to get better at."

On the evidence of the last two days, there's clearly a lot more work still to be done.

Meanwhile, late on Friday afternoon, the leading Irish qualifier, Graeme McDowell, answered questions from the media in between sideways glances at television images of Tiger Woods playing the 18th in the group directly behind him. Reflecting on a solidly crafted round of 69, he talked about there being "a lot more golf ahead of us".

Then he mused: "Six back." In that instant, he caught sight of a menacing figure making a highly improbable birdie from sodden sand on the right of the 18th, to move two strokes clear of the Ulsterman into third place. Without pausing for breath, McDowell continued, "and Tiger Woods holing bunker shots and all kinds of fun stuff. I guess we knew that one was in before it even got there."

As an exercise in hiding one's emotions, it was an impressive performance from McDowell, who must have been seriously jolted by this spectacular effort from the championship favourite. Comfortable in his status as the 2010 US Open champion, he would not have been intimidated by Brandt Snedeker, a former American college rival. Nor by Adam Scott's attempt at becoming the first Major winner employing a broomhandle putter.

Lytham, meanwhile, did its best to adhere to the original golfing tradition of rewarding sustained accuracy, often at the expense of power. Through a stubborn refusal to be overwhelmed, it demands, at its most formidable, a more calculated strategy unless one happens to possess the remarkable recovery skills of Ballesteros.

In this context, it has delivered a string of brilliant champions. One need look no further back than its last four stagings, which were won by the illustrious Spaniard twice, Tom Lehman and David Duval, all of whom were world number one at a stage in their careers.

Yet much of its traditional fire has been dampened by the recent spate of horrendous weather. Indeed the significantly extended greens staff were in action yesterday from daybreak, attempting to remove lingering water from a number of bunkers on lower-lying areas of the links.

McDowell's claim on Friday evening that the course was "on the edge of being unplayable", was over-stating the case, given the quality of the play produced by the leading challengers. Still, problems persisted during the third round. Pools of water of varying dimensions remained in bunkers on the first, second, fourth, 15th, 16th and 17th holes, despite the best efforts of the staff using pumps and every conceivable device to overcome the situation.

This, apparently, was no more than an inevitable consequence of the cumulative effect of recent rain raising the water table way above the normal height for this time of year.

Tom Watson, playing in his 35th Open, felt that the fundamental problem had to do with the nature of the terrain. "I don't see this piece of property being 40ft of sand, like some of the others that we play on," he said. "You see a lot of mud out there, which means it doesn't drain very well in certain areas."

Whatever the reason, serious logistical limitations with Lytham were seriously exposed in a week in which Royal Portrush was effectively ruled out as an Open venue, certainly for at least another decade. Even with park-and-ride arrangements, spectators had to walk long distances to get to the course and the pressure on limited car-park space was exacerbated by the inevitable muddy conditions.

The one area in which it clearly scores is in accommodation, with Blackpool and all its hotels just a few miles up the road. But in terms of other key details, such as traffic and parking areas, it has been the least efficient Open venue I have experienced in recent memory.

We can but look to a worthy winner by way of compensation.

Sunday Indo Sport

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