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Rory McIlroy gets rollicking from caddie to get him back on track at Open

By Liam Kelly

Rory McIlroy started his bid for a second Open Championship victory with shock and awe - but the shock came from his horrendous start and the awe a sense of grisly fascination that one of the world's best players could hack his way around the first six holes at Royal Birkdale in such jaggedly amateurish fashion.

What was going on? Here was a world-class professional, a winner of four Major championships who had every chance to prepare himself for the test to come, finding himself playing out bushes and rough and sand, and looking thoroughly at odds with his game.

Amid the chaos of that opening stretch of holes, only glimpses of his thoroughbred class shone through the murky confusion and saved him from total destruction.

Hacking out of the bushes on the first hole, through the green in four, he holed from 20 feet. If ever there was a 'good' bogey, that was it.

On the third, the first of a run of four bogeys in succession, McIlroy chipped in to 'save' a five.

At the fourth hole he was in a bunker short of the green, and that was another bogey.

A three-putt - yes, for bogey again - came at the fifth, and then at the sixth he missed a possible par save from eight feet.

McIlroy gained some respite over the next three holes, getting through them in par to turn in 39 blows, including the eighth hole where he got up and down from 95 yards.

Five-over par with nine holes to play, we wondered what was coming next? But, thanks in part to a rollicking from his caddie JP Fitzgerald, it turned out his round evolved into the proverbial game of two halves.

Welcome back, Rory.

Finally a red number on his scorecard popped up courtesy of a birdie three at the 11th, a par-four measuring 436 yards, which proved a big turning point.

McIlroy's ball off the tee was heading into trouble but broke off the back of a bunker and into the fairway. From there he played his approach to five feet and slotted the putt for a badly needed breakthrough birdie.

McIlroy was able to open his shoulders at the two par-fives on the back nine, the 15th and the 17th, claiming birdies at each of them.

In fact, he almost made an eagle at the 17th after smashing a mid-iron from 192 yards out of the rough and rolling his eagle putt attempt to inside a foot.

At the 18th he was on in two and, lo and behold, one more birdie and a fist pump to celebrate his inward nine of 32 for a round of 71.

Those are the bare facts of an amazing opening round.

Behind them, what can account for the bizarre, split-personality performance on the two nines?

Let's put a few factors in context.

First, the rib muscle injury that happened last January.

It kept him off the Tour for seven weeks, and he aggravated it later in the season.

It remains an issue and has not healed to the extent that McIlroy can practise and exercise as much as he did before he incurred the injury.

It needs 'managing' to make sure he does not repeat the original damage, which would be very bad news for any professional sportsman, let alone a golfer whose body has to twist and torque into what are ­essentially unnatural positions.

That means, as he said on Wednesday, if he feels an aggravation in that area, he has to stop what he's doing and rest it, which completely goes against the grain of a golfer at his level.

The putting, yes, has been an issue, and in fact it goes back to McIlroy's amateur days when he regularly made loads of ­birdie chances but did not capitalise as often as he should.

His short game has not looked sharp, which has put pressure on his putting.

Confidence has suffered. Pride and expectation comes into it for the best players. They know their capabilities, and when they are on song, the positivity flows and anything seems possible.

Another key point is that McIlroy has always produced hot streaks, interspersed with some down periods, but he's such a box-office talent, anything he does is viewed in terms of heaven and hell.

For example, he shot 63 in round one of the 2010 Open, and followed that with an 80 in round two.

In the 2012 Open he started with 67 and slumped to 75 in round two.

And let's not forget that 2011 Masters final-round collapse that was followed a couple of months later with a scintillating record-breaking US Open triumph at Congressional Country Club.

This is Rory McIlroy. Much as he would like, his tendencies to ebb and flow are part of his nature.

We should note also that, despite the disruption to his season, McIlroy has not performed too shabbily, as is evident by tied-fourth finishes at the WGC-HSBC Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and tied-seventh at the Masters.

He'll be back on top, no worries.

Belfast Telegraph


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