McIlroy relaxed and ready to face his friend
Matchplay. It’s a golfing fruit machine, a one-armed bandit ready to throw up myriad permutations and send the greatest player on the planet fumbling for another coin while the relative poor relation cashes in.
By rights, Rory McIlroy should be trembling a little in his spikes for today’s clash with his friend and amateur foursomes partner Shane Lowry given the hullabaloo that’s bound to accompany a potential first round loss to the 64th seed and the focus on his switch to Nike clubs this year.
But the world number one is relaxed after a long break. Missing the cut on his Nike debut in Abu Dhabi four weeks ago had a lot more to do with the indian than the arrows, he says.
Not only that, he’s made subtle changes to the clubs that gave him the most trouble in the Middle East, taking some stiffness out of his driver so he can achieve more spin and carry, and changing the configuration of his Nike Method putter by opting for a heavier head.
The clash of Lowry and McIlroy, team-mates as boys, beautifully summarises their golfing journeys over the past six years.
When Lowry won the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur, world number 20 McIlroy was there to fete his pal at the finish, soaking him in champagne and even buying more bubbly for the press room on the Offaly man’s behalf.
“It’s pretty cool to think where we’ve come from,” McIlroy said, recalling their first meeting in the Boys Interpros at Warrenpoint nine years ago.
“It’ll be a lot of fun but it will be a shame for either of us to go home on the first day but I’ve got to put it out of my mind that we are quite close friends for 18 holes and try and beat him.”
After four weeks away, McIlroy says he’s confident that he is playing far better than he was in Abu Dhabi, where the Ryder Cup captaincy announcement and his Nike launch proved to be unwanted distractions.
“I’m actually much happier with how I’m swinging the club. The clubs were performing fine in Abu Dhabi, it was just the fact that I wasn’t swinging at my best,” he said. “But I did a lot of good work with Michael (Bannon) over the past sort of 10 days, and I feel like I’ve turned a corner with my swing.”
While Lowry insists he is “really buzzing” about his match with McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington were set for a titanic struggle.
At 50th in the world, Harrington can seal his place in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Doral with a first round win.
With his ranking projected to rise to 48th, he can lose and still make it to Miami providing Alex Noren, Thomas Bjorn, Henrik Stenson and David Toms don’t all win today.
Putting their match in a nutshell, McDowell said: “Pádraig is a tenacious sort of fella but I won’t be sympathising with him if he has a first round loss, if you know what I mean. You have just got to try and dig in and hole the putts.”
WGC: Match Play The Lowdown
Course:Ritz-Carlton GC, Dove Mountain, Marana, Arizona.
Par: 72. Yards: 7,791.
Field: Top 64 from the world ranking as of February 11th, 2013
Defending champion: Hunter Mahan.
Purse: $8,750,000 (winner: $1.5 m; runner-up $875,000).
Top four top seeds: 1 McIlroy; 2 Woods; 3 Donald; 4 Oosthuizen.
Last year’s final: Mahan bt McIlroy 21
Selected tee times (Irish time)
14.45 – Poulter v Gallacher
15.05 – Schwartzel v Henley
15.35 – Mahan v M Manassero
15.45 – Rose v Choi
16.15 – Donaldson v Olesen
16.45 – Westwood v Cabrera Bello
17.15 – Els v Jacobson
17.55 – McDowell v Harrington
18.45 – Donald v Siem
19.05 – McIlroy v Lowry
19.25 – Woods v Howell III
McIlroy has 10 top-10 finishes in 15 previous WGC starts.
Woods returns to the Match Play as a three-time winner (2003, 2004, 2008). He holds the record for matches played (42) and matches won (33) as well as most appearances in the final (4). He won a tournament record 13 consecutive matches from 2003-2005.
Red alert for McIlroy: Number 64 seed (Lowry) has defeated the number one seed three times in the 14-year history of the event.
Weather: Today – Cloudy with showers, windy and cold. Chance of snow showers late on. Low 5C, High 8C. Winds SW to W 15-25mph gusting 35mph.
On TV: Sky Sports 1 from 5pm