Rory McIlroy might feel he has unfinished business at this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open but there’s no doubt in Paul McGinley’s mind that the young Ulsterman has nothing to prove at Royal County Down.
The 2014 Ryder Cup captain is clearly one of the world No 1’s greatest fans and while there is still some doubt about McIlroy’s ability to dominate on a hard and fast golf course, McGinley has no misgivings whatsoever.
“He’s the world No 1 - by a long way,” McGinley said before reacquainting himself with Royal County Down for the first time since he caddied for his farther Mick Snr in the 1980 Irish Amateur Close Championship.
“He won The Open last year. And he won the BMW PGA last year,” McGinley said. “Wentworth is like that. Not fiddly, that’s not the right word, but positional off the tee."
Even if McIlroy's game has led to some debate over his perceived weaknesses on hard and fast tracks, McGinley can only see positives in the 26-year old's game, and who can argue.
"He’s only in his early 20s and he’s still got a lot to achieve and different conditions to get better at," he said. “But as far as I am concerned he’s way ahead of schedule, that’s for sure. It’s easy to be critical. Debate? There is no debate. He is comfortably the No 1 player in the world.”
McIlroy has won four majors at an uncommonly early age but he’d love to add an Irish Open to his CV having performed relatively poorly in the event by his high standards since he made his debut as an amateur on the Montgomerie Course at Carton House in 2005.
After missing the cut that year with rounds of 71 and 81, he had his best finish of tied seventh at Adare Manor in 2008 before going tied 50th, tied 35th and tied 34th from 2009 to 2011.
He was 10th at Royal Portrush in 2012 before missing the cut in 2013 and 2014. And that’s why he’s hoping it will be a very different story this week as he heads an all-star cast as tournament host with American Rickie Fowler, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia of Spain and South African Ernie Els helping sell out the last three days.
“I haven’t really played well in the Irish Open and that’s something that hasn’t sat well with me for a few years,” McIlroy confessed to the European Tour website. “I think it’s to do with maybe trying to hard when you get back home and you maybe push yourself too much.
“I’m just going to try and enjoy myself this year and relish the opportunity to play at home. It would be great to win obviously and I’ll be trying my best out there.”
Trying too hard might be to blame but there certainly won’t be any slacking from him this year as he tries to make as much cash as possible for the Rory Foundation.
“I’m so excited for this tournament,” McIlroy said. “Obviously the Irish Open is a tournament that’s close to my heart.
“Now that I’m involved with my foundation hosting the event, and with the title sponsors Dubai Duty Free and all the players coming to play Royal County Down, it’s going to be a great week and I just hope I can put on a good performance for all the fans back home. I haven’t been as excited for a golf tournament this year, apart from the Masters for obvious reasons.
“Royal County Down is probably rated as one of the top five golf courses in the world and with all the players – Rickie Fowler coming off the back of his win at the Players, Sergio Garcia who was in that play-off, Ernie Els, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Shane Lowry, myself and so many other good players coming – it’ll be great.
“I feel like I’ve found a nice balance between what I’m doing on the course and what I’m doing off the course and even in weeks like this where you go to evening functions and try and help as much as you can to put on a great even. There are a lot of obligations next week but that shouldn’t get in the way of me going out there and playing good golf.
“Hosting the event with my foundation gave me an incentive to go back. I’m not doing it for myself, I wanted to do something to help and I think that if my performance and my involvement in the Irish Open can help other people, that would be great and that’s the reason I wanted to do it.
“I’m delighted that we’re going to raise a lot of money for a lot of kids who need it so that will add to what will be a great week.”
McIlroy, Fowler, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and Miguel Angel Jiménez were amongst those out on the links yesterday alongside homegrown talent Reeve Whitson, who found the course firmer and faster than ever as he prepared to take advantage of a dream invitation
“The whole course is playing fast and much shorter than usual,” said the former Spanish Amateur Open winner, now an EPD satellite tour player, who has shot 63 around the course. “I’d hit driver quite a few times out there but today it stayed in the bag on the fifth, eighth, 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 18th… I just hit three woods there today because driver would run into trouble.
“If it’s breezy I’d say the winning score will be single digits under par but it’s relatively calm like today, it could be anything.”
Fowler is back for the first time since the 2007 Walker Cup and he confessed that it was a course that did not allow him to open up the throttle.
“It is a course that allows you to push it only so hard,” the American said after a quick nine hole practice round. “You have got to be careful around this golf course, that’s for sure. If the weather stays like this, that would be nice though.”