Saturday, July 14, 2012


Of course, the circumstances of this Open build-up are radically different compared with the one that confronted him 12 months ago. Then he was coming in on the back of his record-breaking major breakthrough at the US Open; now he comes in on the back of four missed cuts in six events. At Sandwich the seaside air was full of coronation and grand pronouncements. In the suburban setting of Lytham the aerials will sway in the swirling doubt. But wherever McIlroy is, the spotlight will follow; next to Tiger Woods he will be the main attraction. Yes, the headlights will beam on the rabbit again.
From being startled, McIlroy is a cool bunny about it. He could be found at the plush Grove Golf Course near Watford this week, taking a little time out from practice to discuss what many forget is only his 16th major.
“It really hit me when I walked into the press room on the Wednesday,” he said. “I’d never seen a press room as packed as that. You could feel the hype, the tension even. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is a different level’. I definitely wasn’t expected it. I was thinking to myself, ‘Jesus, it was only one tournament. Will everyone just calm down’.”
He might as well have asked the Pegwell Bay tide to do an about-turn. Within a week, McIlroy’s saintly persona had been splattered in suspicion. First when he dared to play dead against the conditions and then when a picture – opportunistically taken on a mobile – of a clinch with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki was posted on the internet. McIlroy had finally and irretrievably crossed the line that separates sport from celebrity.
Ms Wozniacki was to thank for that. The Dane was then world No 1, so with McIlroy’s major this doubles pairing – or foursomes, as it is in golf – was the yarn of the Hello! editor’s dreams. Inevitably, the sporting intelligentsia found a way to muscle their expertise in on the act, particularly when Wozniacki’s ranking began to nosedive and McIlroy embarked on his mini-slump. “Wozilroy”, as they jokingly referred to their partnership, was soon declared destructive to both their careers.
McIlroy shrugged when this was mentioned. “I’m aware what’s been said, but it’s just about caring for yourself and thinking, ‘Am I content’?” he said. “I’ve always said if I’m happy, that’s when I play my best golf. And I did for a while.”
Obviously the streak could not last and place the photos of him at courtside alongside a suddenly unimpressive results sheet and, hey presto, the boy has a problem. As does the girl. Two fatal distractions for the price of one.
“It’s hard to imagine it if you’re not in the position and, let’s be honest, there aren’t going to be many couples who are in Caroline’s and my position,” said McIlroy. “But still, it’s the old thing of being able to separate your professional life from your personal life. When you’re at the golf you have to focus 100 per cent on it. Sometimes I haven’t done that.” For example, at Wentworth in May. With Wozniacki just a hop on the jet away at the French Open, McIlroy found himself lost on the Burma Road. This was to be the second competitive weekend off in succession and, contrary to the way he was supposed to feel, McIlroy was hardly crying into his bag-towel as he drove out of Surrey.
“I didn’t shoot a great first round and then, in that middle stretch of the second round, I had a few bogeys,“ he said. “So I stood on the 12th tee and realised I probably wasn’t going to make the cut. From then on, half my body was in Paris and the other half in Wentworth. But that’s totally understandable, I feel.”
The romantics will yell “yay”, the cynics will mutter “nay”. McIlroy is not bothered what anyone thinks. “We were lucky to find each other; two people doing a similar thing,” he said. “Yeah, fitting in time to see each other can be awkward, but we’re always going to have these logistical problems. We’ve just got to deal with it, get around it and make the best if it. The only thing is she’s a Liverpool supporter. Nobody can be perfect, I suppose.” The Manchester United fan laughed.
He is evidently relaxed, content that everything is in order as it can be in such a strange existence. Something clicked at the Irish Open at Royal Portrush two weeks ago and it was not just his swing. The smile was as natural as the tempo, the connection with the fans as genuine as it was with the ball.
“I enjoyed it much more than I have in the last couple of years and that’s because I approached it in the right way – I embraced it,” said McIlroy. “The Irish Open had come to feel like a burden. I hadn’t handled it well. But then, this year, I thought to myself, ‘There’s 35,000 on this golf course and the majority have come to watch me. That’s a great position to be in. So instead of being miserable and sulking, why not just enjoy it?’ And I really did.”
McIlroy is anything but surly by nature. Professional sport does this to its superstars; distorts the psyche and corrupts the output. By McIlroy’s own admission he had “taken my eye off the ball” in the midst of those missed cuts. Now it is firmly realigned after so much work with his coach, Michael Bannon. “My game feels back where it was,” said McIlroy. “I’m excited about Lytham.”
McIlroy and Bannon spent Thursday and Friday on the Fylde coast and, after hosting a charity day for the junior section at his home club in Holywood on Saturday, which is expected to raise £60,000, McIlroy will return to Lytham tomorrow. That is three days earlier than last year as he extends his arms and prepares to hug the experience.
“I’m going to embrace it and just camp out there and play, play, play,” he said. “Maybe, I’ll play my practice round with just one ball and try to make a score. It’ll get me into a competitive mood when I’m actually reading putts and concentrating, not just chipping and putting willy nilly.” It is an idea handed over by Jack Nicklaus, the 18-time major-winner who has famously become a mentor to McIlroy. “Jack told me about it years ago, the first time we sat down, in fact,” recalled McIlroy. “It’s hard to take in everything he’s telling you at once and sometimes things come into your mind that you’ve forgotten. And you think, ‘I’ll try that’.”
Hence the competition before the competition. “Jack always played four rounds before the major started,” said McIlroy. “And he always played with one ball, trying to make a score. He reckoned whatever total he had shot that week he would do better the next week.”
Nicklaus was usually right, as well, although it is worth noting that he took 13 majors before winning his second, while Tiger Woods doubled up after 17. So McIlroy is not too far off the historic marks. However, there is a palpable urgency.
“The second major will mean more to me than the first,” said McIlroy. “Because while there’s loads of players walking around with one major, there’s not that many with multiple majors.”
To this end, Lytham may well be perfect. “It’s one of those courses that I don’t have to make suit my eye, but does suit my eye,” he said. “The last time I was there, I was five down after six in the Amateur Championship to [European Tour player] Danny Willett, who eventually beat me on the 17th,” he said. “And I had a couple of close calls in the Lytham Trophy, three-putting the last to miss out in a play-off and finishing second in another.
“But when I think of Lytham there are happy memories. It was always my birthday when the Lytham Trophy came around and I remember being there on my 17th birthday when one of the presents from my mum and dad was the Highway Code for me to start driving. I thought, ‘I’m a man’!”
With the special place in his heart, there is a special shot he has always reserved for Lytham, as well. It is a little fade he will use to bring off the bunkers which is ideal for the front nine. “And I don’t mind if it’s windy,” said McIlroy. “It’s only what I said after the third round last year that made people think I don’t like playing in the wind.”
To rewind, McIlroy told a stunned assembled press after his tournament-wrecking 74 that he would just have to wait for a calm Open to collect his Claret Jug. Cue recrimination.
“Those comments were born out of frustration,” he said. “I’d battled really well in the tough conditions to be only two over after 13 but then as soon as the rain had suddenly stopped and wind suddenly died, I hit a ball out of bounds. I thought, ‘Great, all that hard work for nothing’, and I was still annoyed when I came off.
“Of course I can play in the wind. I grew up doing so and have played well in the Dunhill Links and made the best score on a blustery weekend at St Andrews in 2010 after my second-round 80. But I suppose nobody will believe me until I prove that I can.”
Bizarrely, McIlroy has plenty to prove, despite having reached No 1 in the world this year and having gained more ranking points than every other player except Woods. But McIlroy is judged by higher deeds. So, he is right, he may as well cosy up to all that expectation at Lytham. Because it is not going anywhere.



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