Saturday 17 August 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'McIlroy owes it to himself to challenge for more Major titles'

The lack of a competitive edge means Rory's rivals simply don't fear him

Rory McIlroy. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Rory McIlroy. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Dermot Gilleece

As dusk gathered around the closing holes at Royal Portrush on Friday evening, Rory McIlroy cut an heroic figure in a situation of high drama. Wave after wave of cheering greeted his every move as he edged closer to the half-way qualifying mark.

It was wonderful theatre with a local hero centre-stage. Yet as things transpired, a player viewed as the potential winner of several more Major championships was about to depart the scene of battle before the really serious engagement of the weekend.

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Much was expected of McIlroy in the 148th Open Championship and one imagines he would have been seriously disappointed if that wasn't the case. And what happens? A display totally unworthy of the player, or his fans, left him with such a mountain to climb that not even a sparkling 65 on Friday could repair the damage.

This isn't a time for cheap shots at a seriously talented sportsman. Rather it is an attempt at understanding why that talent seems to go wanting on the really big occasion.

In the words of Tom Watson: "Great players have good focus. It means that on every shot, you know where to hit it and where not to hit it; you can picture the shot you want to play. That's essentially what you have to do to win Major championships."

By his own admission, McIlroy was seriously out of touch in Thursday's 79. Though he readily acknowledged the profligacy of his four putts on the 16th, there were other instances where he fell well short of what a great player would do. Like failing to hole a seven-foot putt for a seven at the first. That's the sort of back-to-the-wall response the great ones tend to make.

Capable of winning in all circumstances, he has a growing tendency to succumb to pre-tournament nerves. Which is not what one expects from a top-level competitor.

At its most basic, competitive sport is about competing, pure and simple. That is what defines the great ones. Winning came so easily to McIlroy (right) in his early years, however, that he never felt the need to sharpen a competitive edge to the extent of becoming a fearsome opponent.

Another side of competing is a willingness to be hurt; to lay everything on the line, whatever the consequences.

There's a suspicion that McIlroy doesn't embrace this fundamental of sport. When the mood takes him, like it did on Friday, he is virtually unbeatable, but he lacks the inner drive to make good things happen when he faces adversity.

Quoting instances of competitive steel from great players such as Jack Nicklaus, may seem excessive. But that's the level to which McIlroy has always aspired and, logically, by which he has to be judged.

Though it may seem churlish, there is an inescapable parallel between his experience here and that of Nicklaus in the 1981 Open Championship at Royal St George's. The Bear carded an opening 83 after being told, prior to the round, that his son had been involved in a traffic incident in the US.

Declining to take part in a full-scale media conference for fear of using his son's problem as an excuse, he opted to meet a select group of scribes in the locker-room. Among the questions he was asked was what did the 83 mean. "It obviously means I have to shoot 65 or 66 tomorrow," he replied.

He carded a 66 which left him one stroke inside the cut, and on a course he seriously disliked, he went on to finish tied 23rd behind the winner, Bill Rogers. As it happened, Friday's round by McIlroy may have been a stroke better, but as professionals like to say, it still didn't get the job done.

He was admirably courteous in his post-round interview on Thursday. But should he have been? Should he not have been so angry with himself that his responses to the media had to be squeezed out through gritted teeth. Sure, he was clearly disappointed, but there was no indication of the anger and disgust one might have expected.

I have spoken to seasoned observers who find it odd that serious flaws remain in McIlroy's game after more than 10 years on tour. In short, he hits far too many destructive shots for a player of his quality. Why haven't these problems been sorted on the practice ground?

Some months past his 11th birthday, Tiger Woods had decided that life simply couldn't get any better as he stood on the tee of a 290-yard par four in the World Junior Championship. Suddenly, his 12-year-old opponent unleashed an amazing shot to drive the green.

"That," said Woods many years later, "is the only time I have ever been intimidated on a golf course."

I can't help wondering how many contemporaries McIlroy manages to intimidate in his quest for further titles. How many of them would be fearful of sharing the fairway with him down the stretch of a Major championship, the way Greg Norman famously was of Nick Faldo at Augusta National in 1996?

While all the money in the world eases the burden of living, it can also weaken competitive drive. McIlroy owes himself more regular tilts at glory.

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