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Omens are good for Rory McIlroy to make it a treble

By Karl McGinty

The young English ex-pat, whose duty it is this week to check in the golfers as they arrive at the practice tee, visibly blinks as a large figure emerges from the blackness and bids her a cheerful good morning as he marches past.

"It was Darren Clarke," she said. "I honestly didn't recognise him at first, he's lost so much weight."

In fairness, the Ulsterman's reputation in the United States as a real broth of a boy would make it difficult for anyone over here to imagine Clarke setting out at that godforsaken hour. Coming home? That'd be a different matter.

Within moments, another player arrived – world No 1 Rory McIlroy and, after half an hour of banter and ball-hitting, the two Northern Irishmen ambled over to the first tee and struck full-blooded drives into the murky, pre-dawn gloom.

Clarke somehow found his ball in the trees on the left. McIlroy carried the wooded corner of this slight dogleg and found the heart of the fairway, within short-iron range of the green.

With one brilliant shot, the 25-year-old reaffirmed why he is runaway favourite to win the US PGA Championship.

The sky seemed to get brighter with every stride as they walked after their shots, chattering amiably, oblivious to the veil of mist hovering over the rough.

McIlroy and Clarke, their caddies, a few family and friends completed the front nine in less than two hours and only picked up a posse of photographers and fans through the turn.

How their match stood is best measured by Clarke's cheerful mock exultation at winning the par-five seventh. "Won a hole," he exclaimed, raising both arms in the air. "Just four down."

Clarke won the par-five 10th as well, holing a five-foot birdie putt, even though McIlroy was just through the back of the green in two with a monster drive and towering three-wood.

The Holywood native's tee shot at 10 skidded to a halt on the soft, dew-laden turf just 10 yards shy of the flag marking Louis Oosthuizen's 340-yard winning effort in the Long Drive Competition in the dry heat of Tuesday afternoon.

For years, Tiger Woods led the dawn patrol on practice days at golf's Major championships, but that's not the only leaf McIlroy plans to take out of his book this week.

The Holywood native also hopes to join Tiger in history by winning The Open, the Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA Championship in quick succession.

Should he overcome the mental fatigue inevitably caused by his heroics at Hoylake and Firestone and romp to victory at Valhalla, McIlroy will show the world how great he really is.

In the unlikely event McIlroy doesn't prevail this Sunday on a course Jack Nicklaus designed in 1986, re-crafted in 2011 and looks a perfect fit for his young protégé, it'll prove how truly exceptional Tiger was.

All of the golfing world hopes that Tiger eventually regains some semblance of his former greatness, but the greatest threat to McIlroy this week comes from younger men, principally his fellow 25-year-old and long-time jousting partner Rickie Fowler; good friends Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose and the man he replaced as World No 1 last Sunday, Adam Scott.

Harrington is the most recent back-to-back winner at golf's Majors after his thrilling double at the Open and US PGA in 2008 and he views momentum as McIlroy's greatest ally at Valhalla.

"Clearly, he is playing fabulous at the moment and I just like the way Rory runs with it when he plays well," said the Dubliner. "Two months ago the golf world was crying why isn't he playing better and now he's world No 1 and everyone's saying he'll never not win again.

"I like the fact that when he does play well, he wins and he carries it through and that is a great habit to have."

Yet the superhuman effort involved in maintaining his focus showed on Monday when he abandoned plans to play nine holes at Valhalla and took a well-deserved day off instead.

"I felt I needed just to recharge a little bit. It's more fatiguing emotionally and mentally when you win a tournament than it is physically."

Fowler, like Garcia, admits he is looking forward to another big Sunday showdown with McIlroy. Like at Hoylake when they played in the final group together, or Quail Hollow in 2011 when the American completed his only PGA Tour win thus far in extra-time, or when he overcame McIlroy in Korea.

"We've had a great time walking the fairways together. It was fun to give him a little bit of a run on Sunday at Hoylake," said Fowler, who tied second in the US Open and Open Championship and is the only golfer this year to finish top five in all three Majors.

"Since we first played with each other at the 2007 Walker Cup in Royal Co Down, it's been fun to watch his career and to get to know Rory more the past couple of years by playing in the same events.

"He's on top of his game and driving it some of the best I've ever seen from him or anyone else. If he keeps doing it, he'll be tough to beat."

Especially so with Clarke's money in McIlroy's pocket after yesterday's traditional eve-of-battle match. The elder lifted the cash and, four days later, the Claret Jug at Sandwich in 2011, while the kid did the trick at Hoylake.

The omens are good.

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