Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Rory McIlroy must tame Teflon Tiger

Rory McIlroy has much to ponder after his play off defeat by Russell Henley in Honda Classic

Can there be any more conniving and capricious mistress than the game of golf? Rory McIlroy fell victim to her worst excesses at Palm Beach Gardens on Sunday.

In a couple of hours, McIlroy had his nerves plucked like guitar strings; his emotions shredded and his pockets picked before being dumped like a drunken sailor in a back alley.

Forgive the hyperbole but the Honda Classic finale was as melodramatic as any film noir.

A production in which McIlroy, the most gifted and exciting young player of his generation, was cast as The Teflon Tiger ... a golfer for whom nothing seems to stick when the going gets hot!

McIlroy appeared to be master of all he surveyed as he stepped onto the seventh tee on the Champion Course with a commanding three stroke lead .

Yet over the next 12 holes in regulation and into the playoff, which American Russell Henley (24) won with birdie, a huge question mark would be stamped on the Ulsterman's ability to perform under pressure.

This guy has won two Majors, the US Open and US PGA by record margins, the latter sparking a sensational run of three more victories up to the end 2012, a period in which he appeared almost invincible.

Nick Faldo described McIlroy's annihilation of the PGA field at Kaiwah Island as "unbelievable, just pure perfection" adding: "To win by eight shows that when he makes it happen, boy does it happen.

"Rory now knows and, more importantly, the rest of the field knows that when Rory is on, they might be playing for second place."

Except that McIlroy, still bruised by the traumas he endured in 2013, appears for the moment neither to know nor truly believe it. .

How ironic that in his two most recent stroke play events, the 24-year-old spreadeagled the field with a spectacular 63 on Thursday yet stumbled to a nervy 74 on Sunday.

Down the stretch at Honda, McIlroy was majestic one moment and maddening the next as he struggled to control his golf ball and his nerve in a dizzying whirl of events.

Though he'd already made a couple of untidy bogeys at four and seven, the shot McIlroy dropped at 12, courtesy of his first three-putt in 186 holes on the US Tour, really seemed to unsettle the Holywood man ... and not just because it allowed the opposition draw level for the first time.

McIlroy's emotional roller-coaster really clicked into top gear through the Bear Trap, a demonic trilogy of holes named for their designer, Nicklaus.

After making a brilliant up-and-down from the greenside bunker at the short 15th, McIlroy plunged into an abyss at 16, hitting his 6-iron so fat out of the left fairway trap, his ball dived into the water way short of the green.

A deathly double-bogey there was followed by another dropped shot out of sand at 17 as McIlroy's short game and putting touch, which had been imperious over the first three days, deserted him.

Yet in this dark moment, McIlroy found the champion within, blasting a superb drive into the heart of the 18th fairway, followed by a 245 yard 5-wood to 11 feet that Johnny Miller described on TV as "one of the greatest shots I have ever seen."

In the movies, the putt for eagle and victory, inevitably would have dropped. Yet golf's not like that. The youngster missed.

"He did what most guys do when they're nervous – gave it just a little bit of a push," said Miller.

Given the way he'd just reached the 18th in two, McIlroy was hot favourite to prevail in sudden death with Henley, Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox, (28) from Inverness, Scotland on the same hole.

His drive was good but, 10 yards closer to the flag, it left McIlroy between clubs for the approach. This time, his 5-wood bounced through the green into a difficult lie in the back trap.

Without spin, his next shot trundled through the green, up against the far collar. Then, in keeping with his afternoon, McIlroy came up short with the chip.

"It's disappointing," he admitted, to his credit adding: "Yet to be honest, I didn't play well enough at all to deserve to win this tournament. Just wasn't in control of my golf ball coming down the stretch.

"Still, I'd a putt to win the tournament on 18 and didn't quite do it. It's tough to take at the minute but I'll sleep it off ... I'll try and get myself into contention (in the Cadillac Championship WGC) at Doral and see if I can do a better job."

McIlroy's honesty with himself is his best weapon in the battle to exorcise completely the demons of self-doubt which possessed him last year.

Some will regard Sunday's angst-ridden final round and McIlroy's defeat in all four playoffs he's contested on the US and European Tours as compelling evidence of fragility under pressure.

In his youth and early days on tour, McIlroy's putter occasionally would let him down under pressure. Yet Dave Stockton has resolved this problem, while the golfer has matured immeasurably in recent years.

Victory over Adam Scott at the climax to December's Australian Open; second in Abu Dhabi after an unfortunate two stroke penalty on Saturday; ninth in Dubai and a Sunday's runner-up finish at Honda (which lifted him two places to sixth in the World) may appear decent to the casual observer.

Yet McIlroy's better than that. Last Sunday wasn't so much hell as limbo, a transitory state for a player who even this week at Doral could achieve the breakthrough win which would make a firm believer of him once again.

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