Sport Golf

Friday 24 November 2017

Serious intent to fuel McIlroy's Masters mission

The new year will be all about the Majors for the World's No 3, says Dermot Gilleece

For all his maturity with club and ball, Rory McIlroy readily acknowledges that mum and dad know best. Which is why his parents, Rosie and Gerry, will form a critical part of his support team on at the US Masters in Augusta next April.

After two tournament victories during almost three months spent in far-off lands, the 22-year-old world number three is home for a family Christmas. And he and Graeme McDowell were together in Dublin last Wednesday, as the formidable duo now heading the fortunes of Horizon Sports.

"Recent developments have been exciting," said McDowell about an October move which saw McIlroy switch management camps from Chubby Chandler's ISM. "Though we played together in the World Cup, I haven't actually spent much time with Rory over the last few years. So I'm really pleased he has joined Horizon. And with two wins, the switch has been pretty seamless.

"For me, there's the advantage of spending more time with him on days like today. He's an exciting player to be around. I love his energy; the way he plays the game, and there can only be positives for me from feeding off him."

McIlroy believes he has fully recovered from debilitating dengue fever which brought serious bouts of fatigue even during his victory march in the Hong Kong Open early this month. He looked bright, fit and healthy in jeans and a chunky grey sweater. And, as usual, his views on his chosen craft were considered, intelligent and often remarkably mature for his tender years.

Like when he explained why he had no plans to buy his own aircraft. "You've got to fly 300 hours a year to make financial sense of it," he said. Then, when I pointed out that Pádraig Harrington made such a purchase in the belief it would extend his playing career, McIlroy replied: "I don't plan to be playing tournament golf in my forties."

He was also sensible enough to recognise that his management of the blade needed improvement when he found himself preferring the prospect of a 210-yard five-iron over water to a tight pin, than a tricky six-foot putt. So he acquired the services of twice former PGA champion, Dave Stockton, to give him a putting stroke to match his long game.

Yet his tears in the wake of a crushing meltdown on the final back nine at Augusta highlighted the difference between intellectual and emotional maturity. And, in his hour of need, his parents were on the other side of the Atlantic.

"It was only afterwards that I realised the effect it had on me, not having my parents there," he said. "They're the people I really trust in my life and the difference my father made at Congressional (scene of his US Open triumph) was huge. Sure, anyone could have said the same things as he did over breakfast on the Sunday morning, but having it come from him made a huge difference. As I get older, I find myself appreciating that more and more.

"How he's really always had the balance right, the talent to give me my own space when I needed it. When I was 15 or 16, I remember he would say, 'When I was your age, I didn't want my dad hanging about with me all the time, either'."

Those were days of togetherness at places like Rosses Point where Gerry was a wonderfully supportive figure while his 15-year-old son became the youngest winner of the West of Ireland Championship in 2005. Funds were tight back then and a proud but practical father was more than pleased to collect a reported €1,000 from the local bookmakers after backing his son for the title at foolhardy odds of 8/1.

Looking towards a different rite of spring, McIlroy added: "I've made my decision. Everything I do from the time I return to the game in the New Year will be geared to the Masters. And next April at Augusta, instead of being with the lads (golfing pals from Northern Ireland), I'll be sharing a house with my mum and dad. It's important to have them there."

All of which would suggest serious intent based on his own resources rather than the notion that a notoriously demanding course might somehow owe him for the pain it inflicted eight months ago. So, what did McDowell think? "I think Rory will win next year's Masters," he said without hesitation.

The 2010 US Open champion went on: "I've always felt the course was tailor-made for his game and I expect him to be really fired up for it after what happened last April. He showed at

Congressional that he can react to that kind of stuff and if I was backing anyone other than myself around Augusta, Rory would be clear favourite."

Meanwhile, McIlroy is also looking to the defence of his US Open title at the Olympic Club, which will be entirely new to him.

"I'll see it for the first time on the champion's Media Day, probably in May," he said. "Then I plan to return there for two days during the week before the championship with JP (caddie JP Fitzgerald) and hopefully my coach, Michael Bannon.

"I'm going to be practising at the Titleist facility in Carlsbad (near San Diego) that week and San Francisco is not too far up the coast. I will also go to Lytham during the week prior to the Open and though the schedule is very tight on the run-up to the PGA Championship, I will be trying to find a way of an early look at Kiawah Island. Either way, I can always turn to Dave Stockton, who captained the winning US Ryder Cup team there in 1991."

Looking beyond this weekend's festivities, I wondered how many Major victories he would consider an appropriate New Year wish. Would one be enough? "It would be satisfactory," came the reply. And there wasn't even the hint of a smile on his earnest, young face.

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