Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Rory McIlroy is our new Celtic Tiger, says Darren Clarke

Rory McIlroy pictured with the US Open trophy at George Best Belfast City Airport last night

Darren Clarke says new US Open champion Rory McIlroy is the only player who can match Tiger Woods at the height of his powers.

Clarke pulled out of this week’s BMW Open in Munich so he could be in Northern Ireland for McIlroy’s homecoming to Holywood.

“I’ve been around the game a long time and only two players have made me go ‘wow’ when they hit the ball — Tiger and Rory,” Clarke said.

“It’s hard to explain and you have to hear the noise at impact to fully appreciate it, but they both hit the ball differently.

“The pureness of the strike is beautiful to see and listen to.

“There’s more to golf than swinging the club though, something Rory knows only too well.

“Throughout his career he has never stopped improving every aspect of his game and I don’t think that will change now that he is US Open champion.”

Clarke first encountered McIlroy when he joined the Dungannon man’s golf foundation as a young teenager.

He has watched him develop into one of the best players in the world, but says he has never seen him swing the club better than he did at the Congressional Club.

“Watching him on Sunday I was struck by how well balanced his swing was,” he said.

“That is always one of his strengths but it was particularly noticeable last week — it seemed to me he could have held his finish for 20 minutes if he’d wanted to. The whole thing looked effortless, nothing moving that didn’t have to be moving. It just looked ridiculously easy.”

Clarke picked out the tenth hole, which McIlroy almost holed in one on Sunday, as the moment that erased any last lingering doubt that he wouldn’t win.

“There are a lot of dangerous holes at Congressional but that is the one where most can go wrong,” he said.

“So when his ball finished only a couple of feet from the cup I knew he was going to win.

“It was such a wonderful shot and showed how well he was playing. It was probably half a club too many for the distance btu he controlled it beautifully.”

And although Clarke rarely gets to compete in the majors himself these days, he reckons the healthy rivalry between McIlroy and the man he succeeded as US Open champion, Graeme McDowell, is spurring both locals on.

“To have two guys from here winning the same major in successive years is the stuff of dreams,” he said.

“They enjoy each other’s successes but they certainly want to beat each other, no doubt about that.

“And that’s the way it’s going to be for quite some time.

“The more they do it, the better they play and what good news that is for us here in Northern Ireland and beyond.”

And Clarke has played his own small part in the secret of McIlroy’s success, persuading

the Holywood man to hook up with his former caddie JP Fitzgerald immediately after he turned pro.

“JP came in for a lot of flak after Augusta, so it was nice to see the pair of them working so well together,” Clarke told The Guardian.

“All through the round I could see that they were communicating perfectly.

“That’s a much underrated part of playing competitive golf under pressure.”

Clarke wouldn’t miss the celebrations this week for the world and, as everyone who saw him at the Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006 knows, the big man knows how to party.

“Last year I was away when G-Mac came home after winning the US Open,” he said.

“I’m sure Rory couldn’t wait to get back home and there are plenty of people there who can’t wait to see him, and to congratulate him.

“The atmosphere in Belfast over the weekend was unbelievable. It seemed like the whole of Northern Ireland was willing him to victory.

“He’s still a bit young at 22, but he’s already getting close to the level of George Best or Alex Higgins in the minds of people here.”