Just over three years have passed since Padraig Harrington cradled the Claret Jug in his arms and gestured to an 18-year old Rory McIlroy on the 18th green at Carnoustie.
“I’d like to congratulate Rory on his fine achievement,” he said of the silver medal winner. “I’m glad I got in before he wins one.”
Harrington was talking about the inevitability of McIlroy becoming a major winner some day soon and while it didn’t quite happen for the youngster in the Open at St Andrews last month, where a second round 80 scuppered his chances, the day is fast approaching.
Whether or not it happens at Pete Dye’s faux Irish links monster, Whistling Straits, today remains to be seen but there is no doubt that one of McIlroy’s Ulster brethren is pulling for him.
The US Open champion Graeme McDowell might be ten years older than his young friend, but he recognises greatness when he sees it and McIlroy, he believes, is the greatest player he’s ever had the pleasure of playing alongside.
Putting aside frustration of his first missed cut in a major since his life-changing victory at Pebble Beach eight weeks ago, McDowell assessed the status of the “wee man”, as he calls the 21-year old prodigy, and didn’t hold back.
“I called it before the start,” said McDowell of McIlroy’s five under par total entering last night’s delayed third round.
On the third longest course in major championship history - a through-the-air driving test for the man who loves to hit the draw - McIlroy is comfortable at Whistling Straits despite the visual intimidation where there is plenty of “clutter” to be flown.
“This golf courses sets up for him because it is a driver’s golf course,” said McDowell, who confessed that he is still mentally fried following his maiden major victory. “It didn’t set up for me because it is a course for a guy who hits a draw and hits it long. And Rory has got it all going on. I am going to enjoy watching him. He’s a fabulous golfer. A fabulous golfer.
“How good would it be if he won this weekend? It would be something a bit special and Rory can get the job done.”
No-one knows how McIlroy will react should he remain in position with nine holes to go today. He’s been constantly reminded to have patience in recent weeks, most notably by Darren Clarke, who was the McIlroy of his day.
“Be patient, you muppet,” he told McIlroy after sensing the young man’s frustration pubbling up after they had played together for two rounds in the 3 Irish Open at Killarney two weeks ago.
McIlroy joked that hearing the famously short-fused Clarke - apparently a reformed character these days - advising people to be patient was a bit like the kettle calling the pot black. But Clarke, who turned 42 yesterday, has made all the mistakes before.
“Yeah, well kettle has been there, kettle knows,” Clarke said with a grin follow a second round 70 saw him survive the cut on level par and erase the disappointment of five dropped shots over the last five holes of his weather-delayed opening 74.
“I am only trying to do what [my manager] Chubby [Chandler] taught me when I was first coming out and I am only trying to do the same thing for Rory. I have been out here for long enough and I am trying to give him a little bit of advice to help him because he has got everything. You guys know. He wants to take on every flag. He wants to go at every pin. He’s one of the best players in the world. I was the same way. But patience hasn’t come to me easy. I am trying to help him because I didn’t heed what people were telling me.”
McIlroy confessed on Tuesday that he must be more patient if he is to win his first major championship. But he’s a young man in a hurry.
“Everyone tells me, ‘Rory just be patient’, but sometimes it’s hard to do that and when you’re trying to get somewhere so fast,” he confessed. “It’s only my third year as a pro and success has come quite fast and you don’t really want to slow down.
“If there has been anything in the past two and a half three years that I have struggled with it, it has been accepting and being patient.”
McDowell stole the thunder of both Clarke and McIlroy when he became the first Ulster-born major winner since Fred Daly captured the Open at Hoylake in 1947.
But like Harrington, he’s just grateful that he has managed to get his major on the board before McIlroy starts to rack them up. And while some point to McIlroy’s slim CV as a reason to doubt his major pedigree - just two wins worldwide since he turned professional just under three years ago - McDowell knows we’re about to see something truly special.
“The kid is 21 years old and won twice world wide,” McDowell said. “It’s crazy but it’s very fair that he was the third favourite coming in here. The kid is unbelievable. He’s awesome. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen, bar Tiger Woods, maybe. I haven’t played much with Tiger in his prime so Rory is probably the best player I’ve ever played with.
“I always joked that if I could slipstream Rory for a few years, I’d be okay. Having a major myself is a personal one up on him but I don’t think he’s going to be too far behind me.
“I’d love him to win this Sunday. It would be great for Irish golf and great for European golf. But it would also be great for him. He’s good enough. Fingers crossed for him.”
As for McDowell, the Portrush man will begin a four-week break tomorrow when he heads off to Michigan to fish and reflect on the greatest summer of his life.
Despite a battling 71 on Friday afternoon, he never recovered from an opening 76 and missed the cut on three over par.
Mentally fried, McDowell can now understand the huge burden that Padraig Harrington has been carrying around since he captured his third major in the space of 14 months just two years ago today.
“I think I am just very empty inside,” McDowell said of his US Open come down. “I am just exhausted. I just don’t have it mentally at all right now. So I really need this four week break I have coming up because I have nothing in the tank. I am not really enjoying myself out there at all.
“It is easy to say you are not enjoying yourself when you are not playing well, but I am not enjoying myself from the first hole on Thursday and that’s not me. I keep saying that I should cut myself some slack, that it’s a good problem to have and all that.
“I think I am emotionally drained. I don’t have that ability to dig deep and clean up around the greens, simply because I am not as focussed as I need to be. I’ve been trying and trying hard I have been driving myself hard. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, if you don’t have it inside - not physically but emotionally and mentally.
“I am frustrated, very frustrated. But you know what, I have had the greatest season of my life and I’m looking forward to these four weeks off and I will be ready to go at the end of the year. So come Austria or whatever it is I am going to play before the Ryder Cup, I will be ready to go and ready to play.
“I have achieved a lifetime dream and I am just going through the motions. And when I boil it down, I have been going through the motions for the last six or seven weeks. That’s not a recipe for good golf. It’s a recipe for finishing 25th and a recipe for missing the US PGA cut.”