Rory McIlroy determined to rise above the pressure and answer the call in Irish Open

Ulsterman says he feels ‘suffocated’ by the weight of expectation of winning the national championship


Fame in a goldfish bowl can be difficult to escape, and none more so than the week of an Irish Open where – as the poster boy – he carries a hefty weight of expectation. Rory McIlroy is honest in his assessment of how he must deal with it all. “That’s something I’ve felt in a couple of Irish Opens, is suffocated; and having that burden and that pressure and that expectation . . . the best thing I can do this week is go out, enjoy myself, smile and try and play the best that I can,” said the world number two.

In his efforts to embrace the championship, McIlroy – seeking an elusive first win of the season – couldn’t have wished for a better venue: his hotel bedroom suite, so large that even he called it “ridiculous”, is but a short walk to the range; and he knows the course well, dating back to his squad sessions with the GUI as an amateur.

Those rather more innocent days must seem like an age ago, for so much has happened since McIlroy first teed-up in the Irish Open as a 16-year-old amateur and shot 71-81 on the Montgomerie Course to miss the cut and, later that evening, was asked to leave a local bar because of his age. Now, he is one of global sport’s hottest properties and, even after yesterday’s pro-am, the adulation in which he is held was apparent as groups of schoolchildren serenaded him as he did a Sky Sports interview on the banks of the river Rye.

Later, at the formal media conference, McIlroy talked of his own expectation. “I’d be very disappointed if I finished my career and I didn’t win an Irish Open,” he confessed.

Buckling the shaft
Is now the time? We’ll see. Certainly, McIlroy – whose final round of golf at the US Open a fortnight ago is remembered for buckling the shaft of his nine-iron in frustration as much as anything else – is positive heading into a tournament that leads on to a very busy schedule with the upcoming British Open at Muirfield followed swiftly by the US PGA at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York.

Of his game, McIlroy observed: “I keep saying it, it’s not far away. My bad shots are just a little worse than I want them to be and my good shots are there and I’m hitting a lot of those. But, sometimes, the bad shots are a little too destructive. If I can eliminate those shots from my game, I’ll have made some big strides.”

If this is to provide the kick-start to his season, he might reflect on a conversation with his father Gerry and coach Michael Bannon at Merion which has prompted him to start writing feelgood notes into a diary.

The course set-up here is far removed from the claustrophobic feel to Merion, where McIlroy last played a competitive round. Indeed, it couldn’t be more different. Graeme McDowell, for one, described it as “perfect” and, for sure, players will drive to wide fairways designed for accuracy rather than length. The greens are pristine, rolling at a not-too-fast 11 on the stimpmeter, and the rough is not as penal as it was in 2005 and 2006 when the course hosted the championship.

The challenge is a fair one, but one which will also ask questions. One of Colin Montgomerie’s design traits is for deep, cavernous sand traps that carry a half-shot penalty. “The bunkers are a bit severe and will probably get a bit of flack this week,” conceded Shane Lowry. They are best avoided.

Lowry – in 2009 – was the last Irish player to win his national open. This time, there is not only strength in numbers but also in terms of quality. McIlroy and McDowell are the only two players in the field ranked inside the world’s top 10 and, in all, there are 27 home players in the 156-man field.

“It’s tough to win your national open. There’s a lot of Irish guys who play this event with similar feelings to (playing in) a Major, a lot of pressure and stress. And there will be another 130 or so non-Irish players who will be treating it as a regular event and be under a lot less pressure than the home guys,” contended Pádraig Harrington.

Perceived glory years
The overall depth of the field may lack some of the glamour associated with the championship’s perceived glory years of the ‘70s and ‘80s but, for all that, no fewer than 12 winners of tournaments on the European Tour so far this season are in the field: McDowell, Scott Jamieson, Jamie Donaldson, Stephen Gallacher, Richard Sterne, Darren Fichardt, Raphael Jacquelin, Brett Rumford, Peter Uihlein, Mikko Ilonen, Joost Luiten and Simon Thornton.

McDowell and Thornton are the only Irish players to have won on tour so far this season but the incentive is huge on a number of fronts for the likes of McIlroy, Lowry, Harrington and Darren Clarke – who went so close in the rain-delayed event here in 2006 – to emulate those wins.

For the frontline Irish players, this Irish Open – more than ever – offers the chance to start climbing towards the peaks again. For McDowell, on the back of back-to-back missed cuts; for the belly-putter wielding Harrington, searching for an overdue win on tour; for Lowry, on home turf; for McIlroy, seeking to let his clubs do the talking. Who will answer the call?