CLOSE on 10 years separate Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy in age.
Yet, in almost every other way, they could hardly be more similar. Their ability as golfers needs no elucidation but it is quite remarkable how close they have become personally and how they share the same views on the game.
There is no way they have deliberately become a mutual admiration society, but those who don’t know them very well could be excused for thinking that was actually the case. Here’s what McDowell had to say yesterday about his young friend.
“Rory is a very experienced young man for a 21 year-old,” he commented. “He came here on Thursday and Friday last week and spent the last four days back home playing at Royal Co Down and Portrush. He’s been on the big stage before and I don’t think there’s any chance he’ll get overexcited.
“It’s great to see the sort of inspiration that the likes of me winning at Pebble Beach can bring to your friends, and British and Irish golfers in general. I’m sure there will be a lot of guys out there this week who will have watched me at Pebble and believe they can win a major sooner rather than later. I think Rory has a great chance this week. He loves this golf course and he’s got a pretty mature head on young shoulders. He’s got the game to do it.
“I feel comfortable with the fact that there are people sharpening their claws and thinking ‘if G-Mac can do it, so can I’. And these guys are all my friends and I’d love to see them win. I’d love to go head to head with Rory or a good friend down the stretch on Sunday afternoon. I look at Pádraig three or four years ago and look at him winning three majors, a guy not blessed with the certain naturally talented long game. He’s worked so hard to get where he is right now and you’ve got to have a really strong short game and a strong head and a man like Pádraig showed that.”
McDowell admits he still finds his Pebble Beach victory “surreal” and it remains to be seen how he copes with the new level of expectancy. He had a tendency to start major championships on a bright note, only to fall away subsequently. He eradicated that fault in admirable fashion at Pebble and should he dip three or four under par after round one this week, that achievement will stand him in very good stead.
In contrast, though, McIlroy goes into the championship aware he missed the cut in both majors so far this year. Nevertheless, he is rated one of the best bets for the title behind Tiger Woods, not least due to the fact hat he didn’t score more than 69 in his previous eight competitive rounds over the Old Course. To maintain such an impressive record under the pressure of an Open Championship would be a massive ask of a man seeking to become the youngest winner since Young Tom Morris who was 17 years, 5 months and 3 days when successful back in 1868. The youngest champion in modern times was Seve Ballesteros who was 22 years, 3 months and 12 days.
McIlroy himself is a mere 21 years, 2 months and 9 days and yet sees no reason why he shouldn’t write his name into the record books.
“There’s a great atmosphere and buzz to the place and I’m pretty confident around this golf course,” he enthused. “I’ve played well here before and the condition is really good. Hopefully, it will continue to play nice and firm and fast and be a good challenge for everyone. One of the things I noticed since playing here in the Dunhill Links in October is that the greens and fairways are a lot firmer and the ball can run out a bit more. My strategy for the Dunhill doesn’t work this week so I’ve had to change a few clubs off tees and adopt a more conservative approach to avoid all the bunkers waiting to swallow your ball up.”
McDowell’s win at Pebble has really enthused McIlroy who says it told him that winning a major wasn’t as far away as he had imagined.
“It caused an amount of excitement for this week among European guys who haven’t won majors, they say if G-Mac did it, they can get one, too, and I’m one of those people,” he said. “I can honestly say I’m more confident as a result of his win just because I’ve played so much golf with him. His game is really well suited for majors. He’s a very solid ball striker and doesn’t do anything wrong. He makes a lot of pars, gives himself lots of chances and he’s got a great short game.”
As for his short price with the bookies, McIlroy just shrugged, accepting: “I knew I’d come here as one of the favourites but it doesn’t put any extra pressure on because I know if I go out and play this golf course the way I know that I can, and if I don’t let the occasion get to me, I should have a good chance.”
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