For most, it is easy to overlook Royal Troon as an Open Championship venue as it possesses neither the famous dunes of Birkdale or the beauty of Turnberry and doesn’t command the reverence we most often associate with St Andrew’s.
But you only have to appreciate its motto “Tam Arte Quam Marte” — as much by skill as by strength — to understand that Troon is very much respected by the players, with many believing that the back nine holes are the most difficult of any course on the entire Open Championship rota.
As dour as the test may be for those watching on TV, the ultimate challenge for the players this week will be to strategise how best to take advantage of the more favourable downwind holes on the front nine before knuckling down to survive a very testing back nine holes that will examine every aspect of their games.
In the right conditions, the composition of the first six holes, which include drivable par fours and two reachable par fives, can be wonderfully inviting but as much as power is an advantage, it is the ability to consistently take advantage of those holes that counts most, as every player will need some sort of “cushion” before facing into a brutal back nine. That back stretch is long and relentlessly unforgiving given that it traditionally plays into a prevailing wind blowing hard from left to right.
Before that grind, the players will first be treated to a little “gem” — one of the most celebrated holes in golf — the par 3 8th, The Postage Stamp.
At only 126 yards, it is without doubt the shortest hole in championship golf but hopefully it will serve to remind the powers that be in the game that golf is still as much about skill as it is strength — something which seems to be long forgotten these days.
As with all Open Championships, the changing weather conditions can have a huge influence on determining the final result but thankfully it seems that all the players will experience the same conditions this week — a soft and largely receptive golf course which boasts the smallest and slowest putting greens of any of this year’s four major championships.
To win this week, players will need to be accurate off the tee box, shaping the ball where necessary, so as to keep it on the purposely designed hogbacked fairways, which all too often carry a fast rolling ball off its centre spine and into the rough. Easier said than done and given that Troon is right on the sea, with no sand dunes for protection from the elements, so it will take a strong mind to win.
At a glance, the one-dimensional “out–in” nature of a course which possesses fewer cross-wind holes than most, gives us some understanding as to why the Americans have enjoyed so much success at Troon. But this year, I expect things to be different.
While no one will argue that Dustin Johnson is the form player in the world right now or that he has the game to succeed at Troon, how much, mentally, has winning his first major championship, the US Open and then the WGC in Ohio, taken out of the affable American? Winning this week may just be a step too far.
For others, like McIlroy and to a lesser extent Day and Spieth, this week represents the type of opportunity to win they need to grasp with both arms.
For McIlroy in particular, these are trying times. Frustrated by inconsistency, he can no longer count on the type of dominance he demonstrated in 2011, 2012, and 2014. Instead, it is he who is now chasing Day, Johnson, and Spieth. The show has moved on. The opposition has raised their game and McIlroy has been found wanting.
In recent weeks, McIlroy has spoken a lot about fine-tuning certain aspects of his swing but hopefully he hasn’t ignored the old mantra “Drive for Show, Putt for Dough”. It is his short game, his pre-shot routines and his concentration levels that need most of the fine-tuning.
On his day, McIlroy is brilliant but so too are the very best athletes, like Andy Murray, the newly crowned Wimbledon champion. But the exceptional athletes like Nicklaus and Woods in golf or Federer or Djokovic in tennis have always found ways to consistently fend off the latest talent pool — new ways to push on and to win consistently over time.
Right now, McIlroy is in a “rut”, no doubt frustrated that all of his hard work isn’t paying the dividends that he would like it to but he has to understand that others too are just as determined.
In a game of fine margins, this is not a time for a crisis in confidence. But my honest belief is Rory has not done everything he can to maximise his chances of success, preferring instead the comfort of being in complete control of all of his decision-making processes.
With four major championships to his name, McIlroy has already secured his legacy in the game but the next few years will define his true greatness. He will be aware that Pádraig Harrington was in a similar position before him so he needs to arrest any slide, sooner than later.
It would help him greatly if he were to let others carry some of his load. He only has to look at the impact that greats of the past, the likes of Ivan Lendl has had on Andy Murray or Boris Becker has had on Djokovic’s title winning careers. Great champions in their own right, money to them means little or nothing — instead they are motivated to make their players even better, and to get there they are quite prepared to tell it as it is.
It begs the question; would Rory benefit from having someone like Dave Stockton mentoring in his corner more often or having Tiger Woods’ old caddie, the no-nonsense Steve Williams, who has won more major championships than Tiger, on his bag? Right now, perhaps it would.
While no one should underestimate the challenge this week, there is no doubt but that Troon, represents a wonderful opportunity for McIlroy to add another major to his already impressive haul.
Either way, the end result might just define McIlroy’s determination to realise his full potential in the game.
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