ON ONE of the most recent occasions they were seen together, during Europe’s Ryder Cup celebrations in the Gleneagles Hotel last September, Rory McIlroy was topless, wearing a mini-kilt and bright red wig, while Stephen Gallacher was clutching a bottle of beer.
Reunited yesterday for the Abu Dhabi Invitational at Yas Links, the pair were fully clothed and definitely sober, yet there was no mistaking the bond from the photograph that went viral on Twitter.
Admittedly helped by the fact it was a relaxed setting – they were followed by fewer than 100 people walking alongside them on the fairways of the magnificent Kyle Phillips-designed course – Gallacher and McIlroy were like a couple of mates out playing a bounce game.
As they chatted from start to finish – the topics ranging from fitness regimes to eating goat – it was a clear indication of how comfortable Gallacher, who will lock horns with McIlroy in a more competitive environment later this week when the Bathgate man bids to win the Omega Dubai Desert Classic for the third year running, now feels in the company of the world No 1 and vice versa. “Over the last couple of years, I have found myself playing more and more with Stephen, including when we were paired in the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic a year ago,” said McIlroy.
“But it was the Ryder Cup that brought us closer together. That’s the great thing about the Ryder Cup. You get to know guys a lot better and it creates a bond between those in the team. The friendships that week will remain forever.” And that photograph? “I’m not sure if either of us can remember it being taken,” confessed the four-times major winner.
At 40, Gallacher may be 15 years McIlroy’s senior, but he is not afraid to admit he takes every opportunity he can to pick the Ulsterman’s brains. “Rory’s not the world No 1 by fluke, so I don’t feel too proud asking him questions about what he’s done to help him get there,” said the Scot. He’s such a good lad, too, and that makes it easier to talk to about his golf. He’s a great role model for everyone in the game.”
Pretty good in that respect himself, Gallacher outplayed McIlroy for 15 holes, having got off to a flyer with back-to-back birdies. “Seven more of them and I’ll get five grand,” quipped Gallacher’s caddie, Damian Moore, as a 15-footer dropped at the par-4 first in an event that offered a $50,000 (£33,356)first prize, with a further $50,000 going to a charity of the winner’s choice.
Helped by further birdies at the seventh, tenth, 11th and 14th – he had dropped a shot at the third after being in two bunkers – Gallacher was five-under and three ahead of McIlroy with three to play before losing a ball with his tee shot, the only one that missed the fairway all day, at the 16th.
With just the top three in the prizes, he opted not to head back to the tee and ended up in last place following a no return, but that bore no reflection of how he played in this latest outing in the company of the best golfer on the planet.
Taking up where he’d left off with a closing 67 in the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters on Saturday, Gallacher outdrove McIlroy on numerous occasions, a feat very few can lay claim to, while there was also evidence that a visit to see putting guru Dave Stockton during a trip to California a fortnight ago is paying dividends already.
“When you get to 33rd in the world, climbing even higher than that becomes more a mental thing and that’s one of the things I was talking to Rory about today,” said Gallacher, who is likely to be paired with him again in the opening two rounds at the Emirates Club later this week.
Before then, the double defending champion is hosting a TaylorMade event tonight at The Els Club in Dubai, where he will try out the company’s latest driver for the first time. On yesterday’s evidence, though, it’s unlikely he’ll be changing his big stick just yet.
“That driver has been in the bag since Doral [venue for the WGC-Cadillac Championship] last year,” he said. “They’ve got the new R15 out and it will be interesting to see if it can match or beat the one I’ve got. You’ve always got to test out the new kit and that’s how I’ll be spending tomorrow.”
And the chat about goat being on the menu? “Rory was asking me if I’d ever eaten goat and I said ‘no’. They don’t do goat suppers in Bathgate,” quipped Gallacher.
In an event won by South African Darren Fichardt with an eight-under-par 64, Richie Ramsay had a 74, the same as Chris Doak, while Sandy Lyle and Carly Booth signed for 76 and 80 respectively.