Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Why golf needs Rory McIlroy at No 1

Rory McIlroy will go to the top of the world as early as next Sunday if he wins the Honda Classic. And the sooner the Holywood star gets to No 1, the better for golf.

With respect to Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald, the three Europeans who've filled in since Tiger slipped out of the hot seat in October 2010, the sport needs a talismanic figure at the summit.

Don't take this wrong. Westwood, Kaymer and especially current No 1 Donald are phenomenally gifted players, rightfully held in the highest regard within golf. Yet they do not exude anywhere near the same animal magic as Tiger or Phil Mickelson at their pomp.

Or Rory, who — like Tiger — is capable of playing in a way which makes golf exciting to people who have never lifted a club in their lives.

As golf discovered when Woods first burst into the global limelight in 1997, if you have a player who captures the imagination of the masses, it's boom time. Despite more than two years in which Tiger and his game have been in rehab, remarkably he still remains the biggest draw in golf.

Yet every time Woods gets his nose wiped by guys like Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi, Phil Mickelson in the final round at Riviera or even Nick Watney in round two in Tucson, his credibility is stretched ever further.

Indeed, should he fail to putt with his once trademark confidence at this year's four Majors, Tiger is in danger of making disbelievers of us all.

The numbers playing golf in the US and Europe are already on the decline, so the vacuum left by Woods must be filled if the sport is to avoid a double-dip. It requires someone who can play the game in the same way that Jimi Hendrix or Rory Gallagher played guitar... a natural who makes it look like fun, as opposed to five hours trying to work out the sporting equivalent of scales.

Until Westwood or Donald takes his career to the next level by winning a Major, they'll not have the gravitas, that ring of confidence necessary to wow the world.

By winning four times last year and becoming the first man in history to top the official Money List in Europe and America in the same year, Donald drew from reserves of mental and physical strength few believed he possessed.

Yet he has never truly thrust himself into contention in the final few holes of a Major... and almost seems like too nice a guy to intimidate his rivals if he did.

In contrast, Westwood (38) has had six top-threes, including three runner-up finishes, on the Grand Slam stage since missing the Tiger Woods/ Rocco Mediate play-off at the 2008 US Open by just one stroke.

However, his penchant for tightening up over putts at the climax to Majors leads one to suspect that Westwood's vast talent may go unrequited at the Grand Slams.

Kaymer has won a Major —the 2010 US PGA — and appeared ready to exercise a Michael Schumacher-like domination of golf. However, he struggled to carry the mantle of the World No 1 last spring; fiddled with his swing before the Masters and has not exuded the same kind of authority on the golf course this year.

Though Hunter Mahan (29) was a worthy winner of his second WGC title in Tucson, McIlroy's prospects of victory and, by extension, becoming Ireland's first World No.1 were scuppered by having to play two ‘finals' on the same day.

Having invested so much energy in their semi-final ‘dogfight' that morning, McIlroy and Westwood naturally struggled to lift themselves again after lunch.

Had the WGCs been around in 2008, would a young Tiger have rebounded from as intense a confrontation with Mickelson to beat, let's say, Vijay Singh in the afternoon? OK, maybe he would... yet the Accenture format must be re-examined.

Requiring one of the hottest matches in the history of this tournament to tee-off shortly after dawn on Sunday in front of 50 people was sheer lunacy.

The semi-finals must be returned to Saturday evening and, hopefully, the decider restored to 36 holes.

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