Rory McIlroy expects to challenge while Luke Donald vows to chill out
World No 1 backs himself to beat anyone when 'on' as Englishman learns to deal with PGA pressure
It was the game's ultimate beauty contest, the world's top three players paraded one after the other at the eye-catching Surrey home of European golf.
Usually contestants are not asked to rate themselves. Here there was no escape, and varying degrees of discomfort.
Reflecting his pre-eminence as world No 1, Rory McIlroy hesitated politely before backing himself against anyone, providing his game was "on". Luke Donald deferred to McIlroy's depth and range, draping himself in the modest nomenclature of the artisan.
"I've said in the past, I think Rory is one of the most naturally gifted players there is. He just has that look about him – free-flowing, hits the ball far, just seems really effortless. I feel like, personally, if I don't work hard and grind it out, I'm not going to be that successful. It's just not that easy for me."
Well, up to a point. McIlroy did not reach the summit without bending his back to the cause. He was swinging a club as soon as he could walk. The
experience might have been informal but no less significant for that.
Whether in earnest or in fun, the hours were banked in his Holywood youth.
The third party in all of this, Lee Westwood, got out of bed on the wrong side. "Oh, I don't know. Everybody's got their strengths and weaknesses," Westwood said, hardly disguising diminishing patience with the question. "Luke is probably the best in the world from 80 yards in. I like the effortless power of Rory."
And what do like about yourself, Lee? "I like all of it."
That was the signal to move on. Like the boxer in the hours before the opening bell, Westwood was best left to his own company before the BMW PGA Championship starts here today. It is a good sign. The presence of Donald and McIlroy in the same field heightens the contest. Donald cited his win here last year, following closely on the heels of his World Golf Championship Match Play triumph in Tucson, as a factor in turning hope into belief.
McIlroy made the same point about his US Open victory last June. "After that I started thinking of myself as an elite player. On my day I believe I can beat anyone in the world. You have to believe that you're the best, and I do."
Westwood is the record money winner on the European Tour, and nears 40 wins worldwide. His tally is substantial but it does not include a WGC or major win. A PGA victory here would rank as the greatest of his career so far.
Had he shared Phil Mickelson's putting statistics at Augusta in April, Westwood would have won the Masters by a record margin. We are entering sensitive territory here, though. An hour and a half working on that aspect of his game late on Tuesday evening is evidence enough of that.
Donald, too, feels the weight of nothingness in major territory. "That's what I want to win. I'm not going to shy away from it. That's the thing that's missing. I want to win majors." His failure was held up to the light at the tour's annual awards dinner on Tuesday night when McIlroy and Darren Clarke talked about their achievements four weeks apart in America and Royal St George's.
"I was jealous to see some of those trophies and some of those guys," Donald said. "Again, sitting there last year, watching them, it's motivating. It's motivating to get yourself to work harder to try to achieve that.
"There is more expectation, there's more pressure, it's learning to deal with that. I think that as every major passes, I am learning. I am learning that I get more uptight at majors. It's learning to just relax and kind of deal with that."
The pros were grateful for the diversion that pro-am day brought. Out there in the Wentworth topiary the fluctuating efforts of Hillside member Kenny Dalglish and Chelsea's interim manager Roberto Di Matteo were followed by the curious and the media seeking reflections on turbulence at Anfield and changes at Stamford Bridge.
Both offered nothing, though Dalglish did relent when approached by the young South African pro George Coetzee, posing for a picture and promising to appear in a pro-am on the Garden Route later in the year. First, though, he will have to sort out the backswing (too flat) and the ball-striking (too fat).
Today the whistle blows for real. Hegemony is once more at issue, with Donald eager to depose McIlroy at the top of the rankings. Westwood does not care who he beats.