Rory McIlroy hopes to replicate Tiger’s standard

Irish Open favourite would ‘love’ to get on sustained run like US golfer did in his prime

His DNA is all over this DDF Irish Open, which – being Rory McIlroy – is something of a superhuman endorsement. Hereabouts, in these parts, he is the main man.

Yet, as he prepared for the defence of his tournament title by playing in a pro-am where he had champion jockey AP McCoy and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola as partners, the 28-year-old Northern Irishman has set his eyes on global domination . . . a la the Tiger Woods, of old.

Using that old quip himself about being Ringo, the fourth Beatle so to speak in comparing his world ranking of fourth, McIlroy elaborated about his desire to return to the world number one position – which he last held in September 2015 – and to get the consistency that would help establish him as the sport’s dominant figure.

Others have scaled the heights since McIlroy’s last occupation of that world number one spot. Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson have all shared the number one ranking between them. Johnson currently holds the bagging rights.

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“Right now, I feel like I’m in with a group of guys that could all have a chance to be number one in the world or the best player in the world and hopefully over these next few years, I can maybe separate myself,” said McIlroy, whose season to date has been disrupted by injury.

Spoiled

Woods, though, is the playing standard that McIlroy aspired to reach. As he put it, “I think we were spoiled with Tiger. There’s guys have been able to play that level of golf for six months, nine months maybe, but not being able to keep that form for six years, seven years, eight years. I think that’s testament to just how driven and how good Tiger was. I’d love to get to that point, and be able to keep that for a long time.”

He added: “It’s nearly my 10th year as a pro, and I feel like I’ve got not just another 10 years, but the next 10 years is where I really want to start to make hay and win a lot of tournaments and be in contention in a lot of majors.

“Sort of hitting the prime of my career now and I’d love to be able to get on a sustained run like Tiger did back then. It will take a lot of work, a lot of drive, a lot of practise, but I’m willing to do that.”

“I know where I am and I realise that I’m a long way off where I want to be, but I can’t think about that at the minute.  I just have to think about trying to win golf tournaments, trying to get in contention again at golf tournaments, first of all.  And then just playing well,” observed McIlroy.

That desire to move back up towards the summit effectively gets going again here, amid the high dunes of Portstewart, where McIlroy’s lure – and the $7 million pot of gold – has ensured a strong field that features world number two Hideki Matsuyama along with Olympic champion Justin Rose and Jon Rahm, as well as in-form Tommy Fleetwood who currently heads the Race to Dubai standings.

McIlroy is the tournament host but also the pretournament favourite, on a course which could yield low scoring. Since returning home following the Travelers tournament in Connecticut a fortnight ago, McIlroy has concentrated on links golf playing Royal County Down, Birkdale and Royal Portrush as well, of course, as preparation work at Portstewart. He is in tune.

Bigger hitters

Not that this course will give the bigger hitters any particular advantage. “I don’t think distance is an advantage this week. I think Rory has an advantage most weeks just because he is better. On an average week, he tends to be better than everyone else on. So that would give him an edge. It just depends on where everyone’s game is,” said Paul Dunne.

The bigger question about McIlroy’s prospects of successfully defending his title concern how sharp he will be with a scorecard in his back pocket. That rib stress fracture, which has resulted in two separate periods away from competition so far this season, has apparently gone to leave him in the whole of his health. If so, he can start making good on that bid of global dominance.

And of course there is the issue with his putter which, maybe, isn’t an issue any more. We’ll see. Having gone through no fewer than three different putters at The Travelers, McIlroy met with his putting coach Phil Kenyon during that practice round at Birkdale and has settled on the blade putter that is similar to the one he grew up playing. “I’ve whittled it down to what I want to use,” said McIlroy.

McIlroy went so far as to set up a putting studio in his home complete with mirrors and other putting aids. “It feels good,” he said of his putting stroke. “It feels better than it was. I feel like I was thinking a little too much about it. It was getting a little bit complicated.”

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times