The Open: Rory McIlroy spared the ‘madness’ this time

HE swept into Sandwich last year on a tide of hope and expectation and then proceeded to deflate the vast galleries with a 25th-placed finish. He also let himself down with some out-of-character and rather futile complaints about the weather.Rory McIlroy knows that his performance in last year’s Open was the last word in how not-to-do-things.

However, he should be cut some slack, particularly since he has spent much of the time since apologising for the outburst, which he now realises was born out of frustration.

He only needed to peek through the canvas drapes of the media centre in which he sat yesterday to realise that the conditions could be just as testing this year. He knows he just has to get on with the business of proving to everyone that he can re-connect with the old McIlroy, or at least the slightly younger version of himself.

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It’s frightening when you remember McIlroy is still just 23 years old. He spoke like an old pro yesterday as he recounted the “madness” of last year, when, in the absence of Tiger Woods, McIlroy was given a glimpse of the mania that only a few British sportspeople can identify with. Andy Murray, for one, has it each year. Few others, however, can know of such pressure when in their early-to-mid-twenties.

He has been out once in Lytham for dinner so far and though there were the usual requests for autographs, he reported that the “commotion” was definitely less marked than it was this time last year.

“It’s been lovely just to be able to go about my business this year,” he added. “There’s definitely not the madness that was going on last year. I have tried to keep it as low key as possible and just go out and go about my business. I have felt I have done that pretty well.”

In the run-up to last year’s Open, many, including Justin Rose, predicted he would relish the circus that had attached itself to the young golfing hipster, after he had left the rest of the pack trailing to win the US Open a few weeks earlier. In the end, a Northern Irishman did take the Claret Jug home with him. But it was the greying, slightly pot-bellied and very un-hyped Darren Clarke who took all the plaudits. McIlroy, by contrast, earned the kind of interest attracted by a car crash.

His weekend scores of 74 and 73 saw him tumble down the board to an eventual tie for 25th place, at seven over par. The media centre was packed that evening as he sought to make sense of his poor showing on the Saturday. In such circumstances, who wouldn’t have blamed the weather and the course for their shortcomings? He also remembers thinking to himself: geez, would everyone just calm down? It’s only one tournament.

Asked yesterday whether he felt the surrounding brouhaha had, with retrospect, impinged on his performance, he replied: “A little bit”. Although the rain continued to batter down outside yesterday, it has got a bit calmer in other places, including inside McIlroy’s head. He has been dating the former world No 1 tennis player Caroline Wozniacki for more than a year, when last time around it was just a few weeks.

However much people might want to create a link between his patchy form and the demands of maintaining such a high-profile relationship, the fact is he made it back to world No 1 for a few weeks as recently as March. He bridled at the suggestion that he is being distracted, with the reference having obviously been to Wozniacki and her charms. There is, though, no question that he is relieved to be free of the attention that was fixed on him in Kent, although part of the reason for the tumult around him having eased can be attributed to the return of Woods.

Perhaps this is why McIlroy seemed so pleased to see the former world No 1 yesterday as they practiced together on the driving range. McIlroy, the younger of the two by 13 years, went up to Woods and congratulated him on his recent AT & T win at Congressional.

It is telling that he now feels comfortable in the company of Woods, however much the American’s star has dipped in recent times. “I feel like Tiger and I have a good relationship, one that has developed over the last couple of years,” he said. “The more I have gotten to know him, the more you feel comfortable around him. But I think that’s the same with anyone really.”

McIlroy’s own trials and tribulations this year – he missed three cuts in succession before finishing tied for tenth place at the Irish Open at the end of last month – has increased his respect for Woods, whose consistency during the years when he was racking up major title-victories saw him win six tournaments in a row on three separate occasions. “It’s an unbelievable feat,” he said.

“Even just to win two weeks in a row or to contend twice, mentally that takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot more out of you than if you are finishing 40th or missing the cut, or whatever.”

McIlroy, indeed, suffered from a degree of mental fatigue last year, something which might have contributed to his petulant comments between his third and fourth rounds at Sandwich. “That was just pure frustration,” he reflected yesterday.

“I had really high expectations going into it, coming off a major win. I really wanted to do well and get in contention. Not doing that saw me blaming the weather, blaming the draw, blaming my luck, basically. Looking back on it a year later, I just didn’t play well enough to get in contention.”

He now admits to another fundamental shortcoming: his preparations were all wrong. Instead of going to the French Open, he took some time out, making a visit to Wimbledon among other places. Indeed, he didn’t swing a club in anger between the last shot of his record-breaking 16 under par performance at Congressional and his first at the first tee at Royal St George’s. Bad move he now admits, hence him having arrived here last week on the back of his Irish Open appearance.

Apart from a quick trip back to his hometown of Holywood for a fund-raising dinner, he has remained focused on his preparations at a venue where he twice competed for the Lytham Trophy, a prestigious amateur title.

He has been taking seriously the task of re-familiarising himself with the surroundings, playing practice rounds last Thursday and Friday while implementing a tip given to him for free from Jack Nicklaus. The old master advised him to try using only one ball when getting the feel of the course. He shot four under par on the back nine on Friday using just one ball, and then, on Monday, he managed to shoot one under par for the last three holes, again using just one ball.

“It gets you back in that competitive frame of mind,” McIlroy said of the tactic.

Should he reach his target of top of the leaderboard come Sunday night, Nicklaus may well be among those he wishes to thank. He might not be so grateful for the madness such a victory is guaranteed to unleash.