As host of the Duty Free Irish Open, Rory McIlroy knows that this week is going to be much longer than most.
Firstly, there are his obligations to the tournament’s sponsors, the galleries and the assembled field.
Everyone wants their pound of flesh and while no one has done more to resurrect the fortunes of the Irish Open in recent years, he will be glad that the baton is now passing to Paul McGinley to host next year’s tournament.
That said Rory will want a fitting finale — a tournament with an Irish champion to eclipse all others.
For the mighty Ballyliffin Golf Club, that is a tall ask but both general manager John Farren and John McLaughlin of North & West Coast Links have spent two and a half years meticulously preparing for this opportunity and with the weather set fair, the Irish Open promises to deliver a commercial bonanza for one of the most stunning counties of Ireland.
Having been here before, McIlroy knows full well that as one of the pre-tournament favourites there will be added interest this week from the media in his performance, given he is only two weeks away from the Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Normally jovial and honest, I expect to see him more ‘guarded’ in the media centre, carefully deflecting questions away from his poor run of form in the major championships over the past three years.
It’s a sensitive topic for the most talented striker of a golf ball in the world but so too are some of his more bizarre actions and decisions during that period that — most of which have either left him injured or uncompetitive — so it is not unreasonable that some journalists have started to speculate as to whether or not we have already seen the best from McIlroy.
This week the competitive test posed by an exacting Ballyliffin golf course should give us a great insight into McIlroy’s mental state as he enters one of the most important and demanding periods of his year.
McIlroy thrives when the ground is soft, when he can use his length to overpower golf courses but none of that will count for much this week.
Instead McIlroy must execute a gameplan that demonstrates enough flexibility for the changing wind conditions — one that sets up the best approach shot while avoiding the penal fairway traps.
He must have the patience to accept the often-unfair bounce of a ball and realise that the firm conditions may make accessing certain pin positions a near impossibility.
I say this knowing full well McIlroy’s remarkable, almost unbeatable, record as an amateur on links courses but where once he knew he could dominate against lesser opposition, nowadays McIlroy more often than not looks a man impatient with himself and his game.
Being so talented and not consistently delivering is frustrating but McIlroy often beats himself into a level of frustration by making poor shot decisions, aided in no small way by not having a more experienced “bagman” who is constantly alert to his every whim and experienced enough to control what is often a very hostile environment, in order to get the right result.
In a game of inches, McIlroy stands guilty of giving his opponents too many opportunities. For all of their technical nuances, the battle to the very top in most sports is the same.
It’s continuously about meticulous preparation and delivery. Flair has its role to play but only after the meticulous planning. In an age of video and statistical analysis, players know their strengths and their weaknesses.
They know their default mechanism but the best always find a way to remain competitive.
Where once Tiger and Rory dominated through ability and intimidation, it has been interesting to watch Tiger’s comeback this year.
At 42, the odds of getting back to his competitive best are stacked against him, but it looks like he has a plan and each week we can almost witness him figuring out another piece of that competitive equation.
The same unfortunately cannot be said for McIlroy who still hopes to bring his A game to every tournament. His A game wins but his B game is barely competitive and his C game isn’t even mapped.
If he is to make a significant step forward in the game again, then there is no better place than Ballyliffin to start.
There is a tournament to be won and with ground conditions likely to be similar for the Open Championship, in a couple of weeks’ time, this is a great opportunity for him to find a winning formula, through proper shot selections and by grinding out unlikely pars even when the bouncing ball is going against him.
These are the missing X factors from his game.
Rory’s too intelligent not to know that himself but it remains to be seen just how far into himself he is prepared to go to realise his ambitions.
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