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Irish Open Golf: Rory McIlroy gets sponsor, Dustin Johnson in talks


Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy

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Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy's swing might be out of kilter but the world number one is achieving remarkable results on behalf of the Irish Open.

The event's desperate five-year search for a title sponsor will come to an end on Friday when a multi-million deal with a blue chip corporate backer will be unveiled, initially on a one-year contract for May's event at Royal Co Down but with an option going forward.

That new sponsor is certain to get bang for his buck as McIlroy, promoting the event through the Rory Foundation, convinces friends and rivals on the world stage to play one of golf's iconic venues.

Dustin Johnson revealed after his Cadillac Championship victory at Doral on Sunday that he's strongly considering an invite from McIlroy to join Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and, it was confirmed yesterday, Padraig Harrington in the line-up for the May 28-31 tournament, which will almost certainly draw full-capacity 20,000 spectators per day.

"We talked about it and hopefully it will work out," Johnson confirmed, revealing that a mutual friend he shares with McIlroy, Irish entrepreneur Dermot Desmond, has urged him to come and play.

"Dermot said to me that I have to come," admitted Johnson, adding with a grin: "I told him that if he sends his plane for me, I might think about it!

"I'd love to go back to Royal Co Down as it is one of my favourite links courses. I played the Walker Cup there so I have really good memories of the place.

"I really enjoyed that week and even though I'm not sure of my schedule at this stage, I'm going to try and make it work."

That may not sound certain but is as close to a 'yes' we'll get from Johnson prior to an official announcement.

Desmond is a passionate golfer and has become a friend and trusted advisor to many of the world's leading players, including Tiger Woods.

"Dustin coming would be a great bonus," said McIlroy, who continues his Masters build-up tomorrow and Thursday when he plays Augusta with his dad, Gerry, and New England Patriots' Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady.

McIlroy also was in touch with Adam Scott at Doral when Australia's 2013 Masters champion said he'd welcome an invite to play at Royal Co Down.

Johnson's return with Rickie Fowler to the scene of their 2007 Walker Cup triumph over McIlroy's GB&I side should be of immense significance as the 30-year-old American emerges as the Holywood native's hottest rival. As Tiger and Phil fade, the sport needs someone to step forward and challenge McIlroy, and Johnson is that man.

"Cleary Rory is a great player and has won a few Majors but I think I can play with him," he said. "I'm not afraid of him, that's for sure.

"He's a great golfer and I think I am too, so I'd really like the chance to come down the stretch with him and see what we're made of.

"We're really good friends and live right across the water from each other (in Palm Beach) so it'd be fun to take him on. I know I'm up for the challenge."

Not only is Johnson one of those rare individuals capable of matching McIlroy's power and accuracy off the tee, the towering American is so charmingly simple and uncomplicated by nature, he's positively dangerous - especially now he's found harmony in his personal life, emerging from his recent 'self-imposed' six-month exile from the sport 12 pounds lighter and looking more focused than ever.

Johnson's determination to be the best golfer and parent he can be intensified in January when fiancée Paulina Gretzky, daughter of ice hockey legend Wayne, gave birth to their son, Tatum.

After coming from five behind JB Holmes on Sunday to win on the Major-tough 'Blue Monster' at Doral, Johnson offered ample back-up to his assertion "I've been working hard on my game and I've been working hard on me."

It was only his fifth event since the hiatus, which Johnson said he took for "personal" reasons he didn't wish to air in public.

Measure of McIlroy's current swing travails were underscored by his club-toss into the lake at eight last Friday, the biggest talking point of a $9.25m event that, in Tiger's absence, otherwise failed to capture the public's imagination.

His dispiriting missed cut in high winds at Honda, followed by just one sub-par round as he finished 10th and 'disappointed' at blustery Doral, highlighted a slight flaw in McIlroy's swing.

However, might the looming career Grand slam bid at Augusta be taking its toll? We should find out on Thursday week when he plays the Arnie Palmer at Bay Hill for the first time.

Belfast Telegraph