Rory’s new date with destiny

RORY McILROY passed one difficult test with such ease three weeks ago that it would be all too easy to assume he can pass another one this weekend at Royal St George’s.

No-one could deny the 22-year-old his due in overcoming the demons of that nightmare final Masters round, fixing his head and the flaws in his game and winning his first major at the US Open nine weeks later, let alone by eight strokes. It was a remarkable achievement and a testament to maturity way beyond the Holywood golfer’s years and experience.

Yet McIlroy has another, tougher examination to pass at the British Open on England’s Kent coast this week, and with the wind forecasted to blow up to 30 miles per hour during each round, there are more questions to be answered this week, more demons to be banished and plenty of rivals ready, able and waiting to claim the Claret Jug.

Where that last-day 80 at Augusta National hung over McIlroy heading to Congressional Country Club four weeks ago, so his second-round 80 in the wind and rain at St Andrews 12 months ago stalked the Irishman ahead of his 9.09am opening-day tee time in Sandwich today.

A year ago, McIlroy had laid down his marker for Open glory with a spellbinding championship record first-round 63, the joint lowest in the tournament’s history as the Old Course rolled out the red carpet to all comers on a picture-perfect Thursday on Scotland’s east coast.

The following day, the weather bit back and McIlroy was unable to find the mental reserve to deal with the heavy rain and high winds.

So, having coped admirably with concerns about his ability to deal with soaring expectations both in the US and this week, the big questions are whether he has learned to handle the wind in the intervening 12 months and can he adapt that famously high ball flight which can so readily conquer parkland courses to the lower trajectories needed to succeed on links layouts.

“I’ve prepared really well in the last 10 days, two weeks, just working on shots that I need out here,” McIlroy said yesterday after an early practice round with friend and mentor Darren Clarke in the company of defending champion Louis Oosthuizen and Masters winner Charl Schwartzel.

“Physically I feel a lot stronger but mentally I’m a lot better than I was last year. So that was a good lesson to learn. I’m going up against that again this year, hopefully I’ll deal with it a bit better.”

Clarke certainly thinks McIlroy’s ball flight will not be an issue, observing: “He wasn’t hitting it high this morning, he’s fine, yes he’s fine. He’s playing lovely, he’s got the ball under control and playing great.”

The bookies agree, McIlroy having not wavered in his favouritism with oddsmakers who believe McIlroy is destined to become the first man since Pádraig Harrington in 2008 to win consecutive majors.

This, however, is a course that produced Ben Curtis as its winner last time around in 2003 and as five-time champion Tom Watson reminded us this week, links courses are great equalisers.

And with the weather threatening to bare its teeth, there will be plenty of contenders relishing the opportunity to take on the 7,211-yard, Par-70 Royal St George’s layout that Graeme McDowell calls “a potential sleeping giant” under such conditions.

World number one Luke Donald, winner of last week’s Scottish Open, is in the form of his life and has the accuracy off the tee, the exquisite iron play and superb short game to pick his way around Sandwich’s humps and bumps and undulating greens.

His nearest rival in the rankings, Lee Westwood also has those attributes as well as the experience of so many majors near-misses in recent years to make the English duo legitimate second favourites behind McIlroy, while Schwartzel and American duo Steve Stricker and Nick Watney would also fit the bill.

And then there are McIlroy’s compatriots. Harrington’s two British Open titles in 2007 and 2008 demand serious respect on such renewals and whatever his recent form, there would be nothing to put a spring back in his step like staring into the teeth of a stiff sea breeze with a links course stretched out before him.

McDowell, perhaps, has even more going for him and his demeanour this week has suggested he is more than comfortable in these surrounds.

The 2010 US Open champion has not enjoyed the best of times in his seven British Opens to date and is yet to register a top-10 finish. Yet he has the experience of winning a major down the home straight, as he did at Pebble Beach, and he is oozing confidence, happily rolling along under the radar as his buddy McIlroy attracts all the attention.

It seems strange that as recently as last month, the 2011 US Open was seen as a wide open contest and four weeks on we arrive in England facing the perception of a one-horse race with McIlroy seemingly destined for further glory.

McIlroy silenced the post-Augusta doubters with his wonderfully assured opening round at Congressional and kept his cool over the next three rounds with a mixture of sensible decision-making and moments of brilliance.

He will be under even greater scrutiny this morning in the worst of the wind, doing his utmost to ensure that this is not another test he has to fail in order to get right the next time.

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