Date: August 06, 2014
Author: Martin Blake /

Counting the days till Rory’s return

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Rory McIlroy's decision to come back to Sydney and defend his Emirates Australian Open title in November will be lauded as a coup, and rightly so.

After all, McIlroy is one of only a handful of players in the world who actually move the needle, as the television people say, and he could not be in hotter form as the new world No. 1.

 While the vast majority of golfers tend to defend their titles, meaning that McIlroy was likely to come back as soon as he rolled in that birdie putt on the 18th green at Royal Sydney last year, it was never a certainty until today's announcement by the New South Wales Government and Golf Australia at The Australian Golf Club, host of this year's tournament.

McIlroy plays a lot of golf in all corners of the world, and he would have needed just a little coaxing, given that the prizemoney at our tournaments has fallen well behind the riches available on the United States and European Tours in recent years.

 But he is coming, and all that remains now for a tournament that will capture worldwide attention is for Adam Scott, the world No. 2, to commit to The Australian from 27-30 November, which he surely will do.

Most Australians like to play the Open because it is the most prestigious of our tournaments, and Scott only missed once in recent memory — back in 2004 when he was invited to compete at Sun City in South Africa. He won the Open at New South Wales Golf Club in 2009 and he was runner-up to McIlroy last year. 

That was a halycon week for Australian golf, and it may well be reprised this year. It is worth reflecting upon the 2013 Open for a moment, for all the pieces fell into place for Golf Australia. McIlroy, who had been struggling to find his best form, played out of his skin.

Scott had already won the Australian PGA and the Australian Masters on the back of his triumph in the Masters at Augusta National in April, and was making his triumphal march through his home country. Then to top all that, the pair did what was never guaranteed in strokeplay competition at the highest level: they came together in the final day in a head-to-head battle.

 Scott began with an amazing 62, shaking off the fatigue of his heavy schedule in the previous weeks. From that point, he ought to have won, but there was always the possibility of a fade-out, given his schedule. He had not originally intended playing the Open but did so out of a sense of duty as the reigning Masters champion, and he had waited as lines hundreds of metres long queued for autographs, posed for a thousand pictures in the famous green jacket, attended dinners with corporates and generally shared the moment — the first Australian to win at Augusta — with the populace. Ultimately, it probably took a toll, and McIlroy was waiting to swoop.

 On the last day, the crowds were 10 and 15 deep with the final group. Scott led by four as they teed off, but the Northern Irishman whittled away the lead. At the par-five 16th, the Australian had a chance to close the door. Leading by a shot, he hit a beautiful long iron on to the green as McIlroy found the greenside bunker. McIlroy could only make par but Scott three-putted. All day, his long putter had proved uncooperative under pressure.

 At the par-three 17th came another chance to bolt the trophy down. Scott hit a gorgeous iron shot to birdie range, and McIlroy missed the green. But McIlroy got up and down, and Scott missed. So on to the 18th, probably the most beautiful closing hole in all of Australian tournament golf, played as a dog-leg right-to-left to the backdrop of the old Royal Sydney clubhouse. Scott led by one shot and his long iron off the tee was in play, a few metres behind McIlroy.

 I walked inside the ropes at that moment and I can only remember one similar moment for Australian golf in terms of the excitement generated, and that was when Tiger Woods returned to Australia for the first time in 11 years, playing the Australian Masters in 2009. It was electrifying to see 20,000 people fill that ampitheatre.

 But it was also a trifle anti-climactic, ultimately, because the so-called Triple Crown eluded Scott. One mistake was enough to do it, an eight-iron shot that bounced hard on the green, scuttled past the pin cut at the back of the green and down into a swale behind the putting surface. It was close to being a perfect shot, but the lines are fine, and he left himself in an awkward spot. The Australian admitted later he had hit the wrong club; his concerns were amplified soon afterward when McIlroy's smooth iron shot stopped just more than four metres from the flag, an uphill right-to-lefter and eminently make-able.

 Now Scott knew that he had to get up and down for a playoff. He scuffed his chip well past the flag, and two-putted for bogey. McIlroy stepped up and rammed his putt home, sharing a warm embrace with Scott. He would sign for a 66, and 18-under for the 72 holes. "It wasn't awkward at all,'' he said. "Adam congratulated me on the last green, he said I deserved it. It's hard not to feel some sort of guilt in the way I won it. But I always believed I could win.''

 Back then, McIlroy was rediscovering his game. He had not won a tournament all year, changed his brand of clubs and endured some personal issues. For the first time in his short career he was experiencing the downside of the game. "It's frustrating because you know the level of golf that you can play, and you're just not able to play to that level. You're working hard and you're trying to find the reasons why. You think you've found the reasons and then you haven't. You try something else. It's frustrating but I never lost belief. I never lost any of that.''

 As for Adam Scott, he was "gutted'' by his failure to close it out. But there is one thing about Adam: he is a glass-half-full guy. When he bogeyed the final four holes to lose the British Open Championship at Royal Lytham two years ago, he came straight back and won the Masters, his first major. I reckon when he shook McIlroy's hand that day he would have had one thought in the back of his mind, though he would never say it out loud: 'I'll get ya next time!'

 So 27 November cannot come quickly enough.