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Red hot Rory closes in on prize after major fightback

By Karl MacGinty

It was supposed to be a stroll for Rory McIlroy at Valhalla. Instead, the 25-year-old faced a trial by fire in yesterday’s the first round of the PGA Championship… and proved his credentials as golf’s World No 1 by showing phenomenal composure and resolve in adversity.

For years all golf has recognised McIlroy’s glory game but the Holywood native these days backs it up with a steel core.

It underpinned his victory last month at The Open Championship in Hoylake and, after a sublime first World Championship success at Firestone last weekend, McIlroy needed to tap into it once again yesterday in the face of a major mid-round crisis.

The enormity of his fightback in the face of adversity is best measured through this simple statistic.

After dropping three shots on his first two holes on his back nine sent him tottering back to even par for the round, McIlroy stood over an eagle putt at 18 for a share of the lead on six-under par with Lee Westwood, Kevin Chappell and Ryan Palmer.

That putt, like two more for birdie at 16 and 17, went tantalisingly close to dropping for the Ulsterman… instead, he’d a tap-in birdie for a 66 and a share of fourth on with Jim Furyk, Edoardo Molinari, Henrik Stenson and Jerry Kelly.

As people struggled to find superlatives to sum up this performance, David Feherty, an Ulsterman who today serves as an immensely popular TV pundit in the US, put it best when he remembered the words an elderly headmaster once said to him: “You should try to be a yardstick by which all others measure their inferiority.”

There had been absolutely no hint of impending disaster as McIlroy swept through the turn in three-under par and then slammed an imperious 315 yards drive into the heart of the fairway at the par five 10th. Which made what happened next all the more shocking, for the player himself and all those watching.

Hooking his second shot at 10 left with his 3-wood and out of bounds off the paved cart track was unfortunate. He later described that effort as “the worst shot I’ve played in the last few weeks” adding “I was pretty annoyed.”

It showed when he threw down a second ball and hit another shot in almost the same direction with what appeared to be the same club.

That shot also drifted long and left, though this time, it pitched on grass instead of concrete and came to rest in a deep swale long and left of the green. Still, his seven there stirred unmistakable echoes of his Sunday afternoon meltdown at the 2011 Masters as he pitched to 23 feet and two-putted.

Especially when the Ulsterman three-putted from 43 feet for an ugly follow-up bogey at the par three 11th.

Only today’s McIlroy is infinitely stronger and more mature than the 21-year-old who imploded three years ago at Augusta. Boy did he show it when required yesterday.

Valhalla may not be Augusta but this game is played principally, as the legendary American Bobby Jones famously said, on a six inch fairway between the ears and McIlroy’s thoughts were far from scrambled.

He was calmness personified as he drilled a fairway metal to the brow of the hill at 12, clipped a mid-iron to five feet and tucked away the birdie putt. McIlroy made another from three feet at the next, followed by a 27-footer for his two at 14 and a six-footer for a facile fourth birdie in succession at 15.

Perhaps that mid-round setback was the best thing that could have happened to McIlroy. It probably stirred a little adrenaline with the anger, helping sharpen his focus as, inevitably, he grapples with mental fatigue after his feats of recent weeks.

McIlroy’s former playing partner on the Irish amateur team, Shane Lowry, also sparkled.

Clara man Lowry followed-up a fantastic final round 65 at last month’s Open, good enough for a share of ninth in Hoylake and by far his best finish at the Majors, with a splendid opening 68 that left him just outside the top-10 at Valhalla.

“I got off to a bit of a shaky start (with a bogey at the par three 14th) and then I birdied 17 and 18 to get back to one under,” the 27-year-old enthused. “I birdied the first as well, then missed a tiddler on the second from inside two feet.”

Yet Lowry’s day also turned as he overcame a moment of adversity.

After hitting “a bad tee shot and poor pitch shot at three, I holed a 15 footer for par and that got me going,” he explained. “I felt really comfortable after that, played decent from there on in.”

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