You must believe you are the best
Rory McIlroy's rise up the rankings makes him a contender for glory in Tucson, says Dermot Gilleece
Rory McIlroy stepped onto the American golfing stage in Tucson 12 months ago, with an ease and assurance one might imagine from a youthful Frank Sinatra on his launch with the Tommy Dorsey Band, decades earlier. Now, this home-grown Holywood star returns there for the Accenture Matchplay Championship, aiming to become a master of his craft, just as Ol' Blue Eyes proceeded to do.
McIlroy's progress so far has been nothing short of meteoric. Given the continued absence of Tiger Woods and the withdrawal of Phil Mickelson, his seventh-in-the-world standing actually makes him the number five seed for one of the game's more coveted titles. "I had the goal of making it into the top five in the world this year and I'm already half-way there," he said last week.
Barring further withdrawals, he faces a first-round match against the 26-year-old Korean-born Kevin Na on Wednesday. And he is joined in the 64-man field by eighth seed Pádraig Harrington, who plays India's Jeev Milkha Singh, and Graeme McDowell, who has an enticing first-round assignment against the gifted Englishman, Luke Donald.
This week's event is highly significant from an Irish standpoint in that it marks the 10th anniversary of Darren Clarke's triumph at La Costa, where he successively beat six Ryder Cup players, culminating in no less a scalp than that of Woods in the final. "I like Rory's chances, not least because it's a high-ball hitter's course," said Clarke.
The 2000 champion, who will be in Belfast and Portrush this week dealing with domestic matters, also pointed to the invaluable matchplay experience McIlroy accumulated during a sparkling amateur career. And, of course, his achievement in reaching last year's quarter-finals in Tucson, losing to the eventual winner, Geoff Ogilvy.
"There's also the fact that Rory fears nobody," added Clarke. "Deep down, he probably believes he can win it, though he'll need a bit of luck if he's to go all the way. You're not going to play great every single day and I remember my big break came in Saturday's quarter-finals against Hal Sutton. Three down playing the fifth, my drive there seemed to be headed for trouble but it hit a power cable which allowed me re-take it. I put the next one on the fairway and the match turned in my favour from there."
Good scrambling is considered a prerequisite of matchplay success and it is fascinating to recall that having missed 44 greens during his seven rounds last year, including the 36-hole final, Ogilvy got up and down no fewer than 40 times. And as Tom Watson liked to point out, you can't be a good scrambler unless you're a good putter.
This is clearly a problem area for McIlroy, who is embarking on his first season as a full member of the US PGA Tour. One need look no further than his eight competitive European Tour rounds so far this year, which have given him the top stroke-average of 68.63. But he is languishing 70th in putts per round, with 29.3. Even for putts per green hit in regulation, he is 46th with a return of 1.739.
All of which has been duly noted by Harrington, an acknowledged master of the blade. "After being hailed as the next big star in Europe last year, Rory is now viewed as the next big star in the States," said the Dubliner. "And I don't think it's going to put any extra pressure on him. It's what he wants. In fact he's loving it. His attitude is terrific; he really loves playing golf and has the same enthusiasm that he had as a kid."
But what about his putting? "That's the fascinating thing about golf," Harrington replied. "For every strength a player may have, there's a weakness somewhere else. And Rory knows putting is his weakness. But he's working on it." As an aside, he suggested: "Maybe I shouldn't be giving these guys tips, but if you want to become a good putter, the trick is to start missing a lot of greens. That's what I did as a kid up in Stackstown."
Then he added: "Rory's young enough to find a gradual improvement, rather than be looking for something dramatic."
Meanwhile, McIlroy has had to confront another hazard of his craft. As an unnatural movement, the golf swing can lead to recurring back problems in less fortunate practitioners. In McIlroy's case, the pain comes in the lower back as a product of the considerable stress created by his distinctive hip action which generates prodigious power.
It flared up in Dubai last weekend and with the critical area still inflamed, he underwent a scan in a Belfast hospital on Monday night to establish whether any unexpected damage had been done. Medics assured him there was no regression from his last scan, several months ago. "By way of countering the strain on the lower back, I have been set special exercises aimed at strengthening the muscles around the joints," he said. "If I play two weeks in a row, it's fine; three weeks and it starts to niggle and after four weeks it starts to hurt. It's a matter of rest and managing my schedule so I don't play too many weeks in a row."
His manager, Chubby Chandler, insisted there is nothing new in all of this. "We've known about the condition for a while now and have taken what we consider to be appropriate precautions," he said. "For instance, Rory has a scan every six months though we brought this latest one forward a bit because of his experience in Dubai.
"Last weekend's problems happened essentially because of the really hard practice he did for 10 days prior to starting his season in Abu Dhabi (January 21 to 24). After a six-week lay-off, he simply hit too many balls. We try to arrange Rory's schedule so that he doesn't play more than two weeks in a row. For instance, he will have a week off after the Accenture before heading to the Honda Classic which starts on March 7, though he is going to have to adjust to the FedEx series in late August and September.
"Even taking these precautions, we must accept that he will probably still have the odd ache. So we have a physio travelling with him to ensure that he's always in as good condition as possible."
Shortly after 7.0am on the eve of last year's Accenture, Tiger Woods arrived at Dove Mountain for his first round in public on a reconstructed left knee since an extraordinary triumph in the US Open at Torrey Pines the previous June. As it happened, the draw threw up the thrilling possibility of a last-16 clash between himself and McIlroy on the Friday, provided they survived the first two rounds. By Thursday evening, however, the defending champion had gone, having lost to the doughty South African, Tim Clark.
One year on, McIlroy's matchplay philosophy hasn't changed. "You've got to believe you're the best out there," he says simply. "You have to believe that no one can beat you." On his climb to the top, he daren't think any other way.