From a childhood dream sparked in the skies over Portmarnock, Rory McIlroy was back in the clouds last night as it came to realisation with a first Dubai Duty Free Irish Open victory.
He may have already won four major titles, two World Golf Championships and a couple of Tour Championships but on the soggy fairways of the K Club yesterday came something that went a little deeper.
Maybe not quite as special as all of the above but a ticked box that is special nonetheless, a national open on home soil that has been a long time in the dreaming for the 27-year-old and more acutely given a recent run of three missed cuts in the event.
“I remember I played the European Young Masters in Germany in 2003, and we were flying back on that Sunday, it was at Portmarnock when Michael Campbell won,” McIlroy recalled following his three-shot victory over Bradley Dredge and Russell Knox. “We flew over Portmarnock, and I remember looking down and seeing the crowds.
“I don’t know why it sticks in my head, but that’s the sort of memory that I have about The Irish Open and first really dreaming about winning an Irish Open.
“So basically from then, I got an invite into The Irish Open in 2005 at Carton House. Yeah, ever since then, you want to win your national open. You don’t get a chance to play in front of your home crowd very often and I haven’t played so well in front of my home crowd for a few years, and so this is very special.
“It ranks up there. When all is said and done, majors, WGCs -- I’d rank this up here for me personally like a WGC, just below the majors. It’s one of the things that I wanted to tick off on my C.V. and thankfully I’ve been able to do it. This is the first, but hopefully it isn’t the last.”
If McIlroy reproduces the form over the last three holes that earned him this victory with a closing 69 then there will be few who will stop him returning to the winner’s circle. Having started the day with three holes still to play of his third round following Saturday’s interrupted play, he began the fourth round three shots clear of Masters champion Danny Willett. Yet it was Scotland’s Knox, also playing in the final threeball, who would emerge as his closest rival. Willett failed to ignite and would run out of steam with an awful back nine as he slumped to a 77.
McIlroy instead went toe to toe with his fellow Florida resident Knox, who had birdied the 14th and 15th holes to take the lead.
Then came the shots that delivered victory. At the par-five 16th there was a major momentum shift, Knox bunkering off the tee while McIlroy reached the green in two thanks to a “perfect” three-wood from 271 yards out to the heart of the green for a two-putt birdie. Knox would bogey and the force was with McIlroy.
“Sixteen was the turning point in the tournament,” he said. “Russell birdied 14 and 15, which are two of the toughest holes on the course. So to birdie those two and all of a sudden for me to go from one ahead to one behind, I knew I was going to have to do something on the last three holes.
“So just one of those shots, you pick your target, you make a good, full, committed swing at it, and thankfully it worked out for me. I didn’t anticipate Russell making a bogey there, so it was a huge, two-shot swing. And I probably could have sealed the tournament on 17, but missed that putt there.”
That putt was a six-footer that horseshoed out of the cup but still, McIlroy went to the last a shot ahead of Knox and Dredge, already in the clubhouse with a 66. It was the cue for a second wonderfully executed approach that sealed his place in the Irish Open pantheon, a five wood from left of the fairway from 256 yards that left him with a three-foot eagle putt for victory while Knox could only par.
“I had a similar shot in the Pro-Am, actually. JP (Fitzgerald, his caddie) tried to get me to hit a four-iron, and it was a similar wind, as well, but I felt like I was trying to hit it too hard. So I actually dropped another ball in the Pro-Am and hit five-wood, a very similar shot to what I hit today. Actually got a little bit of practice there. I didn’t know I would need it at the end of the week but there you go.
“To win The Irish Open, to win your national open, you don’t get many opportunities to do it. I knew I needed to take this chance and I’m just glad I came up with the right shot at the right time.”
Two years ago, McIlroy had won his first tournament of the season at Wentworth to kick-start a stellar summer. He will skip the BMW PGA Championship next week to rest up, spending today at Carton House where he will provide some inspiration to fellow future Olympians on the Rio-bound Irish men’s hockey squad as well as his compatriots on the Northern Ireland football squad heading to Euro 2016.
There may even be a little inspiration left for the man himself with big plans for the rest of his season. He has donated his €666,000 first prize to the three children’s charities nominated by the Rory Foundation but that figure has already been put to good golfing use, narrowing the gap on Race To Dubai leader Willett.
“I kept telling myself, kept telling anyone that would listen, my game was close. It was just a matter of everything clicking. Maybe those last three holes today is the catalyst for another big summer.
“I really feel like my game is in good enough shape to kick on from here and to challenge in the three final majors, and obviously everything else we have to play for this year, Olympics, Ryder Cup, Race to Dubai, FedExCup.
“This is huge for me for The Race to Dubai this year. Danny did me a favour on the back nine today, as well. Creeping up on him in The Race to Dubai, World Ranking points, it’s all good. Hopefully I can kick on from here.”
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