McIlroy is learning from front of the field
BRITISH OPEN COUNTDOWN:The world number two admits he has seen a lot of changes in his life over the last year, both professionally and personally, but his will to win and love of the game is as strong as ever, writes PHILIP REID
NO LONGER a boy wonder, just a wonder, he is drilling balls cleanly off the turf. The target is unusual. Instead of taking aim at a flag stick stuck on to a green, Rory McIlroy – the world’s number two ranked player and the 2011 US Open champion – is firing Titleist golf balls at a metal goalpost which has been set up on the range some 150 yards away, a la Soccer AM’s crossbar challenge.
And, of course, he succeeds.
His reaction is of the wide-grinned, fist-in-the-air variety that reminds those looking on that he retains a boyish enthusiasm to go along with his inner competitive streak.
Don’t be fooled by appearances: inside, the will-to-win in this 23-year-old body is greater than ever; and, ahead of next week’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes, this crossbar challenge set-up by EA Sports, one of his sponsors, at The Grove, an exclusive hotel outside London, is playful diversion and a precursor to the real and serious preparatory work conducted over two days of practice on Thursday and yesterday at the Lancashire links.
Practice, the key to it all.
As he puts it, “it’s not talent that gets you to the top. Talent can only get you so far. It is then having the work ethic, the dedication, the capacity just to handle that and use it in the right way. The guys that I admire on tour are the guys that aren’t as technically gifted or talented as I am and make so much of their games. I mean, Harrington. You’ve seen Harrington play when he was 17, 18. I’ve seen videos of him. I admire guys like that who just get every last drop out of their game and still do, he’s turned it around and is playing great.
“Another good friend, G-Mac as well. He gets everything out of his game. I like being around him and playing with him because I think, if I could just take some of that from him, he’s just so professional about everything he does and I feel that’s something I’ve got better at.
“Because you see it across all sports. The talented ones are usually the lazy ones or the ones that don’t turn up to training or hit as many balls as the others or do whatever. I learned that quickly when I was on tour, that it is going to take much more than being able to hit high draws and low cuts to win out here.”
The past year and a bit has been a life-changer for McIlroy. The meltdown at the Masters. The bounce-back, a record-breaking win at Congressional. A new girlfriend, who just happens to be a sports star in her own right. All change.
“A lot has changed, which is a good thing I think, because change is good and you have to develop. I suppose you have to grow into your own skin in a way and I felt I did a lot of that last year with a few changes, personally and professionally. I think they’ve all been for the good.”
Indeed, McIlroy’s season has been one of ups and downs. Two of the season’s Majors have come and gone with an element of disappointment (tied 40th at the Masters, missed cut at the US Open), but with signs recently that he on the cusp of hitting the early-season form that saw him reach the world number one spot and win the Honda Classic on the US Tour.
“I’ve had this run after Quail Hollow [in May] where there’s been four missed cuts but, even in that, there’s been two top-10s and a big chance to win in Memphis [St Jude Classic] which I should have done. I still see the positives in it and see enough good stuff that it really gives me a bit of confidence going forward.
“It’s still been a great year already, with getting to number one and winning Honda and that run. Even though it’s been a bit of a barren spell the last few weeks, looking at the world rankings, I’ve still accumulated the second most points of anyone this year, just behind Tiger.
“So I still feel like it’s been a pretty successful first half of the year, even though the last few weeks haven’t been great.”
Now, though, it’s back to his roots – playing links golf, as he did through most of his amateur career and how he managed to secure his tour card in 2007 in the Dunhill Links without recourse to Q-school – and the season’s third Major.
The past two days at Lytham, playing the ball a la Jack Nicklaus did with a score in mind to get the competitive juices flowing, were about fine-tuning and silencing those doubters who query his capacity to win when the weather gets tough.
A year ago at Sandwich, where Darren Clarke’s name was the latest in its long history to be engraved on to the Claret Jug, McIlroy – fresh from his record-breaking US Open triumph at Congressional – took some stick from some quarters when offering the view that he wouldn’t change his game to suit links golf.
As he put it at the time, “we play one links tournament [in the Majors] a year, so I’m not going to change for one tournament. I can win an Open. I just have to wait for a year when the weather’s nice.”
The recollection of those words now brings a smile to McIlroy’s face. He said what he said. But. But. But. “We got the worst of the weather on Saturday morning and I was two over after 13, really grinding and really played well in all the bad weather. Then it stopped raining.
“So I though ‘perfect’, got on the 14th tee, the conditions are great and I hit one out of bounds right. I’m thinking, ‘all that good work over the first 13 holes was just . . . ’, and that’s when I got a bit frustrated and made those comments. I just got frustrated with the whole thing because I’m blaming my luck, I’m blaming the draw, I’m blaming the weather.”
He nods, in reflection and in a live-and-you-learn way, and adds: “It just makes you think maybe I should watch what I say a little bit. Remarks like that, maybe just put it in a nicer way.”
The irony is that McIlroy has never been afraid of the wind or the rain.
He grew up playing in it, for goodness sake. Playing the West of Ireland in his teens at Easter time isn’t an occasion for sun cream, as he knows only too well. “I’ve done well in the wind before. Okay, even though I got blown away on that second day at St Andrews in 2010, the weekend was breezy and I shot the best of anyone. So I can play in it. It’s almost [that] me saying it gives people ideas I can’t.”
McIlroy, with his long-time coach Michael Bannon, who has moved on from his job at Bangor Golf Club to join the player full-time on the circuit, has also given the lie to the remark that he wouldn’t change for the British Open.
His game – with its high ball flight – might be tailor-made for parkland courses on the US Tour but he has been working on other shots, low punched shots that defy the wind, with an eye on Lytham. He is anything but a one-trick pony, and, like all great links players, craves creativity.
What is it about links that is so appealing?
“The imagination. I played a little chip shot on Saturday in Portrush. I missed the 15th green left, where you can’t.
“There was a little hump you had to bump it into and let it down. I said to JP [Fitzgerald], ‘I don’t know if I can get this within 10 feet’. So I was thinking of flopping it up in the air and getting it down soft, yet that wasn’t going to work.
“So I bumped it into this hill and it just got to the top and then trickled down to the right where I wanted it to and caught the other side of this slope and went left and finished [inches] away. Those are the sort of shots that give you pleasure.”
What’s more, he knows and likes Lytham. “I try to make golf courses suit me. In the past I’ve said a golf course doesn’t suit my eye but you’ve got to make your eye suit the golf course,” remarks McIlroy of how he approaches different set-ups.
At Lytham, there is no need to pretend. He loves it, with what he calls his “Lytham shot” – a fade – in his armoury since the days as an amateur when he played the Lytham Trophy there.
“Lytham actually has great memories because every year it used to fall on my birthday. So I remember when I turned 17 at Lytham, Mum and Dad gave me the book for the driving test and stuff like that.”
Those were different days and, yet, regardless of how much has changed in his life, the same principle applies in many ways.
“I’ve always said, ‘if I’m happy and content, that’s when I play my best golf.”
Major boost: how Rory helped Darren succeed
Darren Clarke – generally available at 125 to 1 when winning the British Open at Sandwich last year – finally got his hands on the Claret Jug after being urged by Rory McIlroy to follow him into the winner’s enclosure at a Major.
Clarke revealed: “We were playing a practice round on the Wednesday morning. We teed off at 6.30am and, after a few holes, we caught up with Louis (Oosthuizen) and Charl (Schwartzel). They called us through and we agreed to join up. Me being the old pro, I said, ‘right Rory, we’ll take on these two South Africans’.
“I thought he was the young fella in form and we’d nick a few quid off them. I was walking about 20 yards ahead of the three of them when Rory shouted, ‘oi, where’s your Major?’ It was tongue in cheek, but I let them know where it was on the Sunday evening.”
British Open winners (at Lytham)
2001 David Duval (USA) 274
1996 Tom Lehman (USA) 271
1988 Seve Ballesteros (Esp) 273
1979 Seve Ballesteros (Esp) 283
1974 Gary Player (SA) 282
1969 Tony Jacklin (Eng) 280
1963 Bob Charles (NZ) 277
1958 Peter Thomson (Aus) 278
1952 Bobby Locke (SA) 287
1926 Bobby Jones (USA) 291
Rory McIlroy’s relationship with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki – the former women’s number one ranked tennis player, who celebrated her birthday last Wednesday – is one that is lived in front of the paparazzi, but the Ulsterman has accepted that is the way it is and, now, part of life.
“I suppose it’s hard to imagine it if you’re not in that position, because there’s not many people going to be in our position. You have to separate your professional life from your personal life and, when you’re at the golf, you have to focus 100 per cent on that, which I do sometimes.
“Sometimes I haven’t in the past and I’ve learned from that. Sometimes I really have to say, ‘I’m at the golf, this is what I’m doing. This is what’s important this week’.”
With both players on separate tours in separate sports and often many time zones apart, McIlroy acknowledged it can be difficult to find time to meet up.
“I’m a little more flexible because they have mandatory events they have to play in. it’s always going to have its logistical problems. You just have to deal with it and get around it.”