Olazabal talks up 'outstanding' McIlroy
Golf:If Rory McIlroy was not feeling the burden of expectation that comes with being the world number one heading into a Ryder Cup, he might well be now. Already picked out as "a target" by American player Jim Furyk and 2008 winning captain Paul Azinger, McIlroy was today compared to Tiger Woods in his prime by European captain Jose Maria Olazabal.
Speaking after pairing McIlroy with fellow NOrthern Irishman Graeme McDowell in the first practice session at Medinah, the Spaniard said the Holywood golfer was "close" to the form the 14-time major winner was showing at the turn of the century.
"Obviously we have the world number one, he's playing great," Olazabal said. "Even though he didn't win the FedEx Cup (despite winning two of the four play-off events), the way he's played the last few months, he's been outstanding.
"I would say that he is at this moment very close to how good Tiger was at that stretch of time between 1999 and 2002, the way he's playing. He's full of confidence. He's got the whole game and in that regard it's great to have players like that on your team."
That is some compliment when you consider Woods won a myriad of regular events and seven major championships in that time, including the 'Tiger Slam' where he became the first man to hold all four major titles at the same time by winning the US Open, Open Championship and US PGA Championship in 2000 and the US Masters in 2001.
So far, McIlroy has two major titles to his credit - the US Open in 2011 and this year's US PGA Championship - and last week laughed off suggestions from former world number one Greg Norman that he now "intimidated" Woods.
Earlier, Woods said being a target was something he used to relish and McIlroy would too.
"It's part of being consistent," Woods added. "It's part of being ranked number one, it's part of winning major championships. You're always going to want to try and take out their best player, and that's just part of the deal. That's a fun challenge.
"I certainly have relished it over the years and I'm sure he's going to relish it this week."
McDowell today gave warning of what all of Europe’s players can expect when the Ryder Cup starts in Chicago on Friday. And he also gave the broadest of hints as to which eight he thinks will be involved as Olazabal’s side open the defence of the trophy he won so dramatically at Celtic Manor two years ago.
“There’s a world of difference between playing in front of your home fans and playing in front of the US fans,” said McDowell, who made his debut in the 2008 defeat at Valhalla, but then had McIlroy as his partner in Wales and is firmly expected to team up with him again this week.
“Putts that drop in front of your home fans are like a bomb going off — and putts that go in this weekend will be like someone’s got the silencer on. It’s like a muted applause. I remember Valhalla. The 14th was a very big natural amphitheatre and one of the most intimidating holes as a European.
“You knew when somebody birdied — you could hear it reverberating around the course. I think 17 (another par three) is going to have the same effect this week. There’s something interesting about missing a putt and having the cheers go up. That’s something we are not used to as golfers, but it’s something you’ve got to accept this week and I’m looking forward to it.”
That said, McDowell also believes — and certainly hopes — “the days of hostility I think are gone”, but with the course set up for low scoring he added: “I think Davis (American captain Davis Love) wants birdies and eagles to get the crowd fizzed up.”
Seven of Europe’s 12 have experienced an away match before, including Paul Lawrie, who returns to the side 13 years after his debut in Boston, the rowdiest match in cup history. Lawrie hit the opening shot of the match that week and there was the first indication today he will be involved in Friday morning action again.
The former British Open champion was sent out for practice alongside McDowell, McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, while 2008 partners Justin Rose and Ian Poulter were with Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, who two years ago beat American top pair Woods and Steve Stricker 6&5. That left Francesco Molinari, Peter Hanson and Martin Kaymer, all of whom were debutants at Celtic Manor, with Belgian newcomer Nicolas Colsaerts.
McDowell hinted they may not enter the fray until the afternoon fourballs unless someone really shines in the three days of practice. “The established partnerships are fairly obvious — myself and Rory, Poulter and Rose, Donald and Garcia, perhaps a Westwood and Lawrie.
“You can pretty much predict our first eight players Friday morning. You don’t need me to tell you that. Will we be that predictable? Who knows?”
Having lost away and won at home perhaps it was no surprise to hear the 2010 US Open champion making the Americans slight favourites. It used to be thought that Europe always held the upper hand in camaraderie because they travelled together more, but according to McDowell “the American team have got a lot more than they have ever had before.
“I feel like their team is a lot more close-knit than it ever used to be, so that advantage has kind of gone to a certain extent”.
Europe practice groups: Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Justin Rose; Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Peter Lawrie, Sergio Garcia; Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts, Francesco Molinari, Peter Hanson.