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Recapture teen spirit and I'll win The Open, says Rory McIlroy

 

By Brian Keogh

Major championships are as much an examination of intestinal fortitude and mental fitness as golfing ability.

And so, for a game played on the six-inch course between the ears, The Open at Carnoustie looks certain to live up to its name in every sense.

Will the bombers prevail on a course burned golden brown by the summer heatwave? Can the likes of Rory McIlroy, World No.1 Dustin Johnson, US Open champion Brooks Koepka or the aggressive Spaniard Jon Rahm defy Carnoustie with their length?

Or will brains trump brawn and allow a strategist to tack his way between the hazards to arrive safely in port to collect the Claret Jug on Sunday?

Pádraig Harrington survived his brush with the evil Barry Burn 11 years ago, but even after playing the course every day since last Saturday, he was at a loss last night to put his finger on a definitive winning strategy.

"It's changing every day," the Dubliner (46) said after a midday practice round with Wicklow's Paul Dunne.

"The likes of the 16th (246 yards) has gone from an eight iron on Sunday to a four iron today. I am just trying to figure out a strategy that's adaptable."

McIlroy was beaten 2&1 by Shane Lowry in a friendly practice game yesterday and, while the Holywood star has decided to play to his strengths and unleash haymakers with the driver when he gets a chance, the Offaly man knows he has to bob and weave if he's to remain vertical.

"I am hitting a few drivers, sure, but I am not hitting it everywhere," Lowry said.

"I played 18 with Rory today and he is able to take out bunkers everywhere. I can't.

"He had a go at the par-four third today and drove it in the hazard. But he drove up there in front of the 11th as well and that's 382 yards. He can carry the bunkers on the 14th and I can't, so I just play the course the way I know I can play it and the way I have done in the past when I've been successful.

"Personally, I think that if you get yourself in the fairway, more often than not you will have chances."

Dunne believes the longest, straightest player will have the best chance to win - "You just have to keep the ball in the fairway and stay out of the bunkers," he said - but Lowry believes that hanging around par could be a decent return heading into the weekend.

"I heard someone saying 12-under will win and I think that's way off," Lowry ventured, still smiling after winning a free dinner from McIlroy.

"If they tuck the flags away, you will have 40 footers all day, and there are only two par fives so you are not going to make that many birdies.

"Honestly, I think par is a decent number around here. So if I shoot 71 in the morning, I will be happy enough."

The Clara man believes that he can become more aggressive as the tournament wears on having struggled to escape the tyranny cut line all season.

As for McIlroy, the 2014 champion sees the driver as his friend this week but he's prepared to be flexible.

"There's not going to be one player in this field that has a game plan on Wednesday night and is going to stick to that game plan the whole way around for 72 holes," McIlroy said.

The four-time Major winner would love nothing better than to end his four-year Major drought this week.

But he also knows that he has to lose his fear of failure and play with the abandon of the fuzzy haired 18-year-old wonderkid who won the Silver Medal here in 2007.

"I was bouncing down the fairways, didn't care if I shot 82 or 62," he said of the curly haired young genius that was.

"I was just happy to be here. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I'll play golf."

The problem is that 11 years and four Majors later, expectations have changed.

"I think sometimes the pressure that's put on the top guys to perform at such a high level every week, that starts to weigh on you a little bit," he conceded.

It's the kind of pressure that's cost Jordan Spieth this year and dogs Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Tommy Fleetwood every time they're asked to step up their game at a Major.

Even Tiger Woods faces the same mental test as the rest and, as Harrington knows, it's not the physical challenge but the mental fatigue that's to blame.

"I am capable of hitting the ball like the young guys," Harrington said. "It's the mentality I need.

"Age isn't a barrier at the moment. We will have to see if the mental side is sharp because you have to be sharp for 72 holes. That's the challenge for me."

It's also the challenge for Woods, who believes The Open offers him his best chance of winning a Major in his 40s or 50s.

But while some fear that he's lost his ruthless streak, Harrington has no doubts that it still resides within.

"When Tiger gets in contention, he will find it easy to kick back to being the steely competitor," he said.

"We all need a little fire in our belly. When he gets there, he will reset and become that formidable person.

"People don't change their golfing personalities and I think you would see the steely Tiger back if he got into contention. The difficulty is getting there."

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