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McIlroy - Doing it the Hard Way

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on Rory McIlroy's decision to stick with the European Tour

Posted Nov 22, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

rory mcilroy

Nearing the end of his third full season on the European Tour, a sixth-place finish in the Hong Kong Open last weekend would suggest that all is still going nicely for Rory McIlroy.  We're talking, of course, only a short time since his decision to relinquish membership of the PGA Tour in the US.

Naturally, the European Tour are delighted to have one of their brightest young stars as a more regular performer on his home circuit.  And the belief in ISM, the player's management company, is that the decision will in no way inhibit what appears to be an inevitable climb to the top of the game by the 21-year-old from Holywood, Co Down.

All of which illustrates how quickly attitudes can chance in international sport. Indeed it hardly seems 21 months since McIlroy took the US by storm with a sparkling debut there in the Accenture Matchplay in Tucson, Arizona.  After he and Tiger Woods, who was coming back from an eight-month lay-off necessitated by knee surgery, had won their opening matches, there was the mouth-watering prospect of the pair meeting in the third round.  Great expectations came to nothing, however, when Woods lost surprisingly to South Africa's Tim Clark on the second day.  Then McIlroy hammered Clark by 4 and 3, only to lose to the eventual winner, Geoff Ogilvy, in the quarter-finals.

After Woods had departed the scene, the talk that week was dominated by McIlroy. And his impact became all the greater when no less a figure than Ernie Els predicted the youngster was set to become the world number one.  And the Els time-frame was sooner rather than later.  This seemed extremely well founded when McIlroy surged to a remarkable triumph at Quail Hollow last May with a stunning, closing round of 62.  Then came third-place finishes in the Open Championship at St Andrews and the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Now, his competitive journey is to continue largely from a European base.  Is this a wise move?  The Americans hardly think so, given the huge loss he will be to their sponsors.  Meanwhile, the European view is that with the world number one, Lee Westwood, and the current PGA champion, Martin Kaymer, plying their craft mainly on this side of the Atlantic, McIlroy will be in the right sort of company.        

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with Tony Jacklin, who sparked a new era for European talent by winning the Open Championship at Royal Lytham in 1969 followed by the US Open at Hazeltine 11 months later.  "Sure, we've had some great, world-class European players, but generally they have chosen to stay in Europe and go to the States only a few weeks before the majors," said Jacklin. "The different nature of the courses, the way they're set up and the general standard of play over there, is bound to make it more difficult for players making the odd raid, than it was for me."

He went on: "When I went to Hazeltine, the US was my circuit. My success in the Jacksonville Open in 1968 had enabled me to take the heat of winning the Open at Royal Lytham the following year.  And in many respects, the Open set me up to win the US Open, certainly where handling the pressure was concerned. At the end of the day, pressure is what we're talking about here.  At the level of a major championship, golf is very much a mind game and ultimately, it comes down to whether you can handle the heat."

It is interesting that Seve Ballesteros, the next European winner of a major championship, also campaigned on the US circuit where he won the Greensboro Open of 1978 before capturing the Open at Lytham the following year.  And Bernhard Langer also played there before winning the 1985 US Masters.  So did Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo before their major successes.

Despite current European strength, the fact remains that most of the world's leading players are to be found competing regularly on the other side of the Atlantic.  That's why American tournaments are more heavily weighted with world ranking points.  In this context, who was the last player prior to Westwood to become world number one while calling the European Tour his home circuit?  And with respect to the undoubted talents of the Englishman, it has to be acknowledged that his rise to the top was greatly assisted by the self-destruction of Woods.

McIlroy likes life in Belfast.  He enjoys regular trips to Old Trafford to see Manchester United. And he also enjoys seeing Ulster's rugby team in action.  Who is to say he is wrong in making those choices?  I believe there is little doubt, however, that if he is to become the world number one player, his recent decision means he will have to do so the hard way.    

- Dermot Gilleece

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