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"It'll be fun": Rory McIlroy teams up with former Ulster rugby star Niall O'Connor for final event of the year

Rory McIlroy looks on with temporary caddie Niall O'Connor during practice prior to the DP World Tour Championship (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy looks on with temporary caddie Niall O'Connor during practice prior to the DP World Tour Championship (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Rory McIlroy says working with former Ulster Rugby player Niall O'Connor at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship this weekend will be a "fun" experience for both of them.

With regular caddie Harry Diamond taking the week off after wife Claire gave birth to their first child on November 11, it's the former Ulster Rugby ace who's been called into action this week in Dubai.

While this is only a one-week thing - Diamond is expected to be back on the bag when McIlroy begins his 2020 season - this week will be intriguing to watch as the pair work together.

O'Connor, who made 59 appearances across two stints with Ulster and won a further 20 caps with Connacht, is no stranger to the golf course having played in several amateur tournaments across Ireland.

A member of Castlerock Golf Club, the Limavady man is a skillful golfer himself and previously caddied for McIlroy's father, Gerry, at the 2018 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Now working at a private equity firm in New York City, O'Connor has taken the week off in order to help out friend McIlroy, who got to know him through his support of the Ulster rugby team.

"He knows what it's like in the heat of battle," explained McIlroy of his decision to pair with O'Connor rather than take on a professional caddie just for the week.

"Obviously we don't have 18-stone men running at us like he has in the past, so it's a little different! Another thing is he's a pretty good golfer himself, he's played in a lot of amateur tournaments himself, so he knows how that feels to be in the heat of battle and under pressure and all that.

"It'll be fun to be out there with him this week, it's a change of pace for both of us. He's stuck in an office in New York most days. It'll be a great experience for both of us, and as long as I stay loose and relaxed out there it'll be fun for both of us."

While it will be fun to have a friend on the bag, O'Connor's inexperience in the day-to-day caddie duties will be something they will have to deal with at the Jumeirah Estates in Dubai.

Normally, Diamond will go out and walk the course before McIlroy plays in a week and take precise yardages so that the World No.2 knows exactly what he's doing come competitive play.

Former Ulster Rugby player Niall O'Connor, who is caddying for Rory McIlroy at the DP World Tour Championship (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

While O'Connor is no doubt capable of doing that, Diamond will be far more familiar with McIlroy's game than the former Ireland Wolfhounds representative, obviously.

However, McIlroy does not feel he is at a disadvantage this week because of all that and instead insists this was the perfect week - if there is one - not to have long-time friend and caddie Diamond at his side.

"If there's any week I don't have Harry on the bag, it's good it's this week because I feel like I could play this place blindfolded! I know the place like the back of my hand," laughed the 30-year-old.

"It's going to be a fun week for us to get out there. Hopefully I can play well the first two days and get into the heat of battle at the weekend. That'll be fun for both of us.

"Obviously I'll maybe take on a bit more responsibility than I usually do. It feels a little bit like when Harry first came on the bag a couple of years ago, I took on a bit more responsibility writing stuff in my yardage book, pacing stuff out. I actually quite enjoy that part as well.

"Niall and I go back a long way. For me it's about staying as relaxed and loose as possible as I can out there, and Niall can do that for me."

McIlroy is the bookies' favourite for the tournament this week given his recent form, which has seen him win the TOUR Championship, FedEx Cup and WGC-HSBC Champions since the end of August.

The Holywood man has significantly closed the gap between himself and Brooks Koepka at the top of the world rankings after a sensational season that has seen him win four times and be named the PGA Tour's Player of the Season.

Despite his outstanding year, McIlroy is too far back to win the European Tour's order of merit, the Race to Dubai, this week and is instead just competing for the tournament alone.

That is something he has accepted, however, having placed more of a priority on the PGA Tour this year, but he is still eager to finish the season with one more piece of silverware.

"I've won (the Race to Dubai) three times. It's a wonderful feeling to be able to do it, but I haven't played enough counting European Tour events to have a chance," acknowledged McIlroy.

"I haven't played enough, and you look at someone like Bernd Wiesberger (who leads the Race to Dubai), who has played 25, 26, 27 times, whatever it is. Those are the guys who deserve to be up there and have a chance to win.

"One event left. I've had a nice couple of weeks off after the Asian trip. I'm feeling okay. I'm looking forward to a couple of months off to be honest!

"One last event, one final push. I'm ready for it. Back in Dubai, a course I've got a lot of good memories at. Looking forward to the week.

"I've played well this year, four wins is great. It'd be great if I put myself in a position to win a fifth, and I feel with the way I've been playing the last few months, if I go out and do my thing, hopefully I'll give myself another chance and finish the year on a high note."

McIlroy begins his tournament at 12.20pm local time alongside Matthew Fitzpatrick, with Shane Lowry teeing off at 12.30pm with Spain's Jon Rahm.

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