The 26-year-old was thousands of miles from his luxurious home in sunny Jupiter, Florida. He was being swept by fierce showers blown in off the Irish Sea. One of his partners was the local hero and tournament host who happened to be going through a horrendous time, failing to break 80.
Every time Rory McIlroy dropped a shot, a fate that befell him on nine occasions, the massive crowd groaned in frustration. They cared only about Rory.
It hardly mattered that Rickie Fowler was coping admirably with the elements.
To rub salt in the wounds, there was no appearance money on offer and the prize fund of €2.5m, while decent by European Tour standards, was roughly half of that on offer in this week’s Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas, Texas.
Accordingly, if Fowler was wondering at 8am yesterday just what he was doing setting out in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, few would have blamed him. And yet that was far from the case. While world No.1 McIlroy was floundering from one golfing disaster to another, the recently-crowned Players champ with a penchant for flashy dress kept his head down, said little and let his golf clubs do the talking.
Indeed, it often looked like he was the home bird as he controlled the ball beautifully and if his putting wasn’t quite as magical as it was on the final day at Sawgrass a few weeks ago, his work on the greens was more than adequate.
“I love playing links golf,” he glowed within a short few minutes of signing for an even par round of 71. “You get to hit a lot of different shots and depending on the weather, the wind direction out there, the course can play completely different. So you kind of just have to take what it gives you and go out there and give it your best.”
Easier said than done, as no doubt Rory would have agreed. Rickie, though, lived up to the old adage that a good start is half the battle: “I left a couple out there early on but just really tried to keep moving forward and stay patient. There weren’t very many opportunities to play aggressive today. I just tried to have fun and wait for some of these storms going through and the rain and the wind. Just have to kind of put some things behind you and keep moving forward, so I was able to do that fairly well. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.” Fowler was feeling so good that he expressed sympathy for the plight in which McIlroy found himself and even uttered a word of consolation and encouragement in his ear as they walked off the final green.
“Yeah, that’s not the kind of start you want to get off to,” Rickie agreed.
“Obviously Rory has been playing very well so I’m assuming he’ll just be fine come tomorrow and he’ll turn things around.” That would be some achievement, though, given McIlroy probably needs to shoot a five under par round of 66 to have any chance of being around for the weekend. And that would mean equalling the record 66 set by the great Cork golfer Jimmy Bruen in this championship all of 76 years ago.
Fowler, of course, wouldn’t be here at all were it not for the overtures made by McIlroy, an opponent at Royal Co Down in the 2007 Walker Cup and in last year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. In spite of that rivalry, they have become good friends.
“It’s tough to see,” he acknowledged. “You don’t want to see someone struggle and it’s sure not the start Rory was looking for this week. That’s golf. We’ve all been through it and I’m sure we’ll go out and have some fun hopefully feed off each other tomorrow.”
However, this is professional golf. Because of this week’s quality field, there are a large number of priceless world ranking points at stake and Fowler feels this is an ideal start to help still further his ambitions to improve on his current ninth position. The money isn’t that bad with €458,367 going to the winner. Furthermore, the Irish Open remains a highly prestigious title on any cv.
Fowler went as far as he could be expected when whispering words of wisdom in McIlroy’s ear at the finish of it all: “I really just said, let’s go get after it tomorrow. I’ve been there plenty of times, everyone who plays golf at a high level, low level, whatever, knows you have good days and bad days.”
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