Rory McIlroy’s injection of golfing Hollywood into the Irish Open was manifestly evident approaching 8am yesterday, as elements of the game’s royalty limbered up to unleash their opening shots of the 2015 renewal.
The 7.40am grouping offered up for the delectation of the hundreds of early risers nothing less than Darren Clarke, Luke Donald and his English compatriot Danny Willett. Ten minutes later and it was G Mac, Lee Westwood and Miguel Angel Jimenez breezing through. Following them was the pièce de résistance: McIlroy himself, Martin Kaymer and Rickie Fowler.
It’s not so long since the Irish Open was scrambling for its very existence both on and off the course — some would say it still is — so it felt significant to stand in the hinterland of the magnificent Mournes, bathed as they were at the time by watercolour worthy rays of sunshine, and watch that class of talent amble over the dunes and fairways of this most picturesque of peninsulas.
Not just a world No1, but three of his predecessors, as well as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, America’s poster boy and a Spaniard who has long since reigned in the role of everybody’s second favourite golfer. The odd man out, in a way, was Willett whose ‘only’ claim to fame is a world ranking of 39 and a CV that is gathering glitter without yet having attained the status of dazzling.
Yet, as McIlroy’s subsequent travails demonstrated, links golf and the vagaries of an Irish day have long conspired with considerable success to waylay the plans of the best and boldest. All of which has a tendency to leave the stage bare for unlikely heroes and headlines.
So it was that Willett emerged from the shadows of that illustrious nine-man knot to build a round predicated on patience and prudency and, with it, a score that would see him leave the course in the upper echelons of the leaderboard at -2.
This column’s mind goes back to the 2009 tournament in Baltray when a stroll across the course was interrupted by a little-known (to us, anyway) player dressed mostly in black and whose hybrid wood out of deepest rough took the breath away as it soared straight and true from the tangled mass of grass and to within 10 feet or so of the pin.
Turned out it was hat-less Robert Rock, who would only be denied the title by the Offaly amateur, Shane Lowry. The lesson here? It pays to shop around at these places. Individual stock prices rise and fall and, like a medium-priced shot in the Gold Cup or Grand National, the measured risk of lowering your eyes down the running order can pay off.
Most spectators don’t think like that.
Even the numbers of spectators following those groupings containing Clarke and McDowell thinned away, the fans congregating with an inevitability around McIlroy’s company even though his day was already showing signs of falling apart.
Willett, however, had looked a good shot all week. The 27-year old is a former world amateur No.1 who has engineered a handful of impressive finishes at the British Open and US Masters. He finished third in Fota Island behind Mikko Ilonen 12 months ago and he brought form to Ireland after another third, this time in the WGC Matchplay Championship.
Not too shabby, so it was testimony to the strength of the field assembled by McIlroy on behalf of the Rory Foundation that Willett fell between the cracks here — 50 pages of the official programme had been given over to individual player profiles, but his wasn’t among them. His game did the talking for him.
“It’s always one of them in that it’s nice not to do anything stupid and shoot yourself in the foot early on,” he said later using the royal ‘we’ to include the efforts of both he and his caddie, as golfers sometimes do.
“We were playing some good golf but you can’t get too ahead of yourself around here because it can turn around and bite you very quick. Still a long way to go.”
Willett is among a dozen or more young English golfers looking to take the baton from that generation of Donald, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose and the like. And he’s learned that around tracks like this it’s easy as she goes.
“The key is getting it on the greens and making sure you don’t do anything stupid. You get a tight flag, it’s always easy to kind of guide it a little bit and you end up causing it to run down the fairways. A lot of the times I think you’ll see a lot better on the par 5s and you’ll see a lot of people having 50 footers and two-putting and walking off. So that’s kind of how we approached it and ended up pretty good.” But as Willett himself said, still a long way to go.
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