Rory McIlroy will launch his 10th bid for Dubai Duty Free Irish Open success at the K Club today motivated not just to win his national open but also to land his first victory of the year and confound the critics who believe his game has been lacking this year.
World number three McIlroy has just two top-10 finishes in nine attempts at this tournament and while he may have nailed down what it takes to be the best tournament host he can be, cracking an Dubai Duty Free Irish Open on the course has so far proven elusive.
Three missed cuts in the most recent renewals represent a miserable return for this island’s finest player and four-time major winner in his home tournament, and while McIlroy got more deeply involved in it 12 months ago at Royal County Down, bringing the current title sponsor on board, his Rory Foundation gained a lot more from its hosting of the European Tour event for the first time than its founder did.
The Irish Open is certainly a lot stronger for its association with McIlroy, not least in the sharp rise in prize fund this year to €4 million but the Holywood star believes it is time he cashed in and filled a glaring gap in his otherwise impressive resumé.
Winning this week at the K Club, where McIlroy the golf fan watched his heroes sweep to an emotional Ryder Cup victory a decade ago, would also put him back on victory row for the first time since last November’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
That winless streak has, to the Irishman’s annoyance, been the subject of much examination in the media and locker rooms on both sides of the Atlantic and yesterday he hit back at the “negative spin”, instead pointing to three three top-four and five top-12 finishes in his last six starts.
“I’m relaxed about it,” McIlroy said of his winless season to date. “It frustrates me, I guess the negative spin that’s being put on it. And I know expectations for myself are higher than other players, but you look at my record this year with a third in Abu Dhabi, a fifth in Dubai, a third at Doral, fourth in the Match Play; my bad weeks are Top 10s, basically.
“So it frustrates me that the narrative is, there’s something missing in Rory’s game or what’s wrong with Rory, where I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong. It’s very close. It’s very close, and I’m just I’m waiting for something to happen; I might need to make something happen, but it’s not as far away as I feel some people think it is.
“I feel very comfortable with where my game is at, and I know that if I go out and play my best or close to my best, that I’m going to have a great chance to win this week, next week, basically all season, because I’m in a really good place with where my game is. It just hasn’t quite happened yet, and I’m trying to stay as patient as possible.
“Sometimes that’s hard to do when you feel like you’re playing really well but the results aren’t quite there. So I just need to string four good rounds together in a tournament and I feel like from there, I’ll be off and running, and that could be the catapult and stepping stone to another great season.” One need only look back to 2014 for evidence that once McIlroy hits his straps there can be no stopping him. In that season, two years ago this week, he arrived at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth with his game apparently in the doldrums and promptly won the European Tour’s flagship event by a stroke from Shane Lowry. Furthermore he would win The Open, WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship in successive starts later that summer.
Wouldn’t symmetry be a wonderful thing this week, exactly 24 months on, for the tournament host in his national open?
“It’d be huge. I think anyone that plays professional golf dreams of winning their home open,” McIlroy said.
“Winning your home open in front of your home crowd, your home fans, you don’t get very many opportunities to do it, so it would be very special.
“It’s definitely one tournament that is missing from my CV that I would love to add.”
Naturally there are several here this week who would feel the same, not least newly-minted Masters champion Danny Willett, who has a much better Irish Open record than his host with a T10, T3 and T6 to his name as McIlroy was missing cuts.
Lowry already has the luxury of having won the Irish Open but wants to complete a unique double of winning it as a pro having been crowned as an amateur in 2009, while Graeme McDowell comes home to Ireland having finished the best of his countrymen at last Sunday’s Players Championship, his tie for ninth eclipsing McIlroy’s T12 and Lowry’s T16.
The stage appears set for a first home victory since Lowry seven years ago but as McIlroy knows only too well the expectations on the indigenous players this week can be debilitating, more so than representing one’s country at the Olympics, which he seems certain to do when golf re-enters the Summer Games in Rio this August.
“Honestly, I feel like it will be just like any other event,” he said of becoming an Olympian. “I feel like I represent Ireland or Northern Ireland every week that I play, so I don’t feel like it will be any different really. And because you’re not playing in front of your home fans, I’ll probably feel more pressure this week than I will at the Olympics.”
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