Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

McIlroy is kidding nobody: Harrington

Rory McIlroy

All week The Earth Course has been buzzed by jet fighters roaring low across the sky to the spectacular Dubai International Air Show nearby, yet when it comes to menacing objects flying in under the radar at The Dubai World Championship, Padraig Harrington leaves even the latest US and European combat aircraft in the halfpenny place.

It's a long time since Harrington has enjoyed such a low profile entering a European Tour event and the three-times Major Champion was happy last night to concede centre stage to Rory McIlroy and the 20-year-old three rivals in the final 72-hole stretch of the inaugural Race to Dubai.

Indeed, Harrington nominated McIlroy as “a hot favourite” to maintain his advantage over Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Ross Fisher and on Sunday become the youngest winner of the European Order of Merit since a 19-year-old kid named Seve did the honours in 1976.

Normally, Harrington would hesitate before placing such an onerous burden on young shoulders, but when it comes to his prowess and presence on the golf course, 'normal' is not a word usually associated with Rory.

“Nobody out here looks on him as a 20 year old,” the Dubliner explained. “They see Rory as a great player and that's it. He doesn't regard himself as a kid and nobody else does. We all see a great player who is leading the Order of Merit. Age doesn't come into it.”

A winner of the Order of Merit himself in 2006 and excluded from the top-three in Europe's money list only once in eight years, Harrington's eminently qualified to weigh-up McIlroy's options against three experienced rivals.

“I think Rory's in a great position out there in front,” the Dubliner enthused.

“Looking at the golf course, I think he's got a really strong chance.

“Not only can Rory keep it in his own hands by winning, the other guys are going to have to play very well indeed to overtake him.

“He's a fantastic player and has performed with superb consistency all year.

“And he's a nice guy with it. As much as Rory is a competent golfer, he maintains a very nice attitude off the course, which is a really great thing. I can't imagine anyone not rooting for him to win the Race to Dubai, bar Lee, Martin and Ross. Everyone else is very much in his camp.”

The bigger the occasion, the more McIlroy enjoys it. He's revelling in every minute of this week's end-of-season showdown. The stakes are high with £735,000 of a bumper £4.42m purse on offer to the tournament winner an a £900,000 bonus for the man who finishes the season on top of the European Money List.

“From my amateur days, I always wanted to be the one they all had to chase. I feel very comfortable in that role,” McIlroy admitted.

“You walk onto the range each morning and feel like, yeah, this is something really special.”

McIlroy believes the Race to Dubai tops even America's mega-buck equivalent for drama, saying: “I think this tournament is more exciting than the FedEx Cup would be. I'm not trying to take anything away from the FedEx Cup, but the whole season in Europe comes down to just this one tournament, whereas they have the four playoffs in the US.”

A sensational closing 63 at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai the weekend before last sent McIlroy into overdrive and he's played his last five competitive rounds in a remarkable 26-under par.

“After than final round in Shanghai, I said to myself 'right, you've got the next two weeks to do this, let's get down and do it',” McIlroy explained.

“I just want to keep a low profile this week,” he went on. “I have eaten with my mum and dad each night and I haven't been hanging out with Chubby (Chandler, his manager) or any of the other guys. I'm just keeping myself to myself and I'm sure Lee is doing the same — approaching this week like any other tournament.”

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