This wasn’t the best day of Rory McIlroy’s career. Nor will it be the most memorable. But in terms of the world number one’s chances of repeating as Emirates Australian Open champion, it might just be the most significant. An erratic front-nine at The Australian Club had bequeathed a trio of birdies, a brace of balls dunked into greenside ponds and, no doubt, a large amount of frustration. But for the four-time major champion, it was not a time to panic.
No surprise there. We are, after all, talking about the best golfer on the planet. If there are holes to be played, there are potential birdies too. Or eagles. Two over par for the day, the 25-year old Ulsterman reduced the 505-yard par-5 14th hole to three shots – drive, 6-iron, ten-foot putt – then made a nice wee deuce at the 206-yard 15th. At four-under par for the championship and one shot off the lead, McIlroy is an obvious and legitimate “lurker.”
“When anyone hires me, I’m always going to delve more into the mental side of putting than the physical,” says two-time USPGA champion Dave Stockton, who works with McIlroy on his putting. “Rory never gets in his own way though. I’ve never seen him like that. There was a time early in our relationship when he did get down on himself. But all I told him was that I didn’t want to turn on the television and be able to tell whether he made birdie or bogey on the last hole.
“I want him to show more emotion than Tiger. I want him to enjoy himself. But I don’t want ups and downs. I played all those years against Nicklaus and I never knew whether Jack was happy or sad. He didn’t let his golf affect his outlook. That’s what I caution Rory about more than anything.”
Stockton makes a good point. For all his ruthlessness as a competitor, an important part of the apparently free wheeling nature of McIlroy’s best golf is the outward attractiveness of his personality. He is, as his lucrative commercial appeal illustrates, a hugely likeable individual.
“Rory is a lovely guy,” confirms leading swing coach Pete Cowen. “And special. Always has been. I first saw him when he was maybe 14. I’ll never forget the shots that little lad could hit. There was one he couldn’t hit though, a bunker shot I showed him. He tried and tried. He wasn’t embarrassed to give it a go in front of all of the men. And when he couldn’t get it, he turned to me and said, ‘I’ll have it next time.’
“And he did. It was the first thing he did for me. He was desperate to show me. That’s a quality you want in people. He’s never been a shrinking violet. Over the last few months he’s had a few aggravations. But he’s never stopped being a nice bloke and a brilliant talent. He’s enormously attractive to kids coming up.”
McIlroy fancies his chances of picking up the Stonehaven Cup for a second time too. After completing his second round of 69 with another pair of birdies, the Open and USPGA champion sounded a thinly veiled warning to those who would relieve him of the title he won at Royal Sydney 12 months ago.
“I felt like I had an opportunity today to shoot a good one and put a little bit of space between me and the rest of the field, but it didn’t really pan out,” he said. “I made a few too many mistakes. I was happy with the finish though. Four under for the last five holes is never bad. Plus, I had six birdies and eagle today, so a low score is out there. I’m in a great position going into tomorrow.”
Watch out folks, here he comes.