Jack Nicklaus has an almost paternal affection for Rory McIlroy, which explains why he threatened to kick the youngster’s backside when they met at Muirfield Village for a clinic on Tuesday.
“First thing he said to me was ‘I’m gonna kick your rear end!’ haha haven’t seen him since Augusta!” McIlroy tweeted earlier this week.
Watching a player you have taken under your wing lead the Masters by four only to close with an 80 must have been painful to watch for Nicklaus. Yet the Golden Bear is confident the 22-year old from Co Down will eventually learn from his mistakes, as will Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson following their major championship losses.
If they do, they might just follow in the footsteps of Tom Watson, labelled a serial choker early in his career, and win eight majors.
Referring to Johnson’s disaster at Pebble Beach in last year’s US Open, Watney’s in the US PGA at Whistling Straits and McIlroy’s at St Andrews and Augusta National, Nicklaus pointed out that Watson was once that soldier.
“Early in his career, I think Tom Watson had two PGAs and one US Open and he blew it coming down the end. He didn’t waste that experience,” Nicklaus said. “He learned from that experience, and obviously learned how to finish.”
“I’ve been on the recipient of what he learned on a couple of occasions that he did very well.” Nicklaus said, mentally fingering the scars inflicted by Watson at Turnberry and Pebble Beach. “Sometimes you have to experience that before you learn how to do it.”
Only time will tell if McIlroy will learn from the mistakes he made at Augusta. Nicklaus believes the young guns just need to be “hit over the head” a few times before they learn how to close out major wins. How many bashes it takes depends on the man.
“If you don’t learn from it, then you’re not paying attention,” Nicklaus said. “And I’m sure all those guys are very, very good players and they’ll all learn from it.”
McIlroy hopes he’ll be able to show that he has learnt from his Augusta mistakes if he challenges for the US Open at Congressional in a fortnight.
Rory said: “I think I’ve put a few things in place that will make me handle being in that position better again. But you never really know until you’re tested in that environment.”
As Nicklaus explained, it might take another reverse or two for McIlroy to get that major-winning habit.
“Sometimes you have to hit them over the head twice, but in Watson’s case you had to hit him over the head three times,” he said. “I’d call Watson relatively cerebral. Tom has always been a pretty smart guy. He figured it out, but he was pretty young when it happened to him, too. But I think it happens to everybody.”
McIlroy missed the cut when he returned to Quail Hollow to defend the Wells Fargo Championship on his first appearance in the US following his Masters mishap.
But the world No 6 appears to be in a good place with his game after a promising comeback from an opening 76 at Wentworth last week and he loves the Memorial Tournament, where he tied for 10th behind Justin Rose 12 months ago.
As always, his chances of victory will depend on his success with the putter and it will be interesting to see how his slightly modified putting grip evolves over the summer.
From tee to green his game appears to be simmering nicely and he is especially pleased that he has put an old friend back in the bag.
“I’m driving the ball good,” McIlroy said after his 24th place finish in the BMW PGA Championship. “I’ve put my old 3-wood back in the bag, which is a huge advantage. It goes a lot further than the other 3-wood did. I can hit that 3-wood out there 285, 290, which is perfect for the US Open coming up.”
It should also be perfect at Muirfield Village, though tees shots of 290 yards are going to leave him a long way behind Gary Woodland, one of his playing partner this week.
McIlroy will be flying a little under the radar this week with the presence of new world No 1 Luke Donald in the field.
The Englishman re-iterated his belief that Padraig Harrington is the man who inspired the current European wave of success. He knows Harrington inspired him as he sat out much of the summer of 2008 with his wrist in a sling as the Dubliner won the Open and the US PGA in quick succession.
“I think you need one guy to kind of inspire a generation to kind of follow in their footsteps,” Donald said. “For me I guess that was probably Padraig Harrington winning his three majors back in 2008 while I was probably on the couch in a sling.
“I think when you’re around people that you’re pretty familiar with and see that they are accomplishing great things, it sets a little bit of a fire in your belly that if they can do it, so can I. I think we’ve got to thank his successes a little bit for this great run in European golf.”
McIlroy has McDowell to look to for inspiration in that department. Since his Portrush friend won the US Open, he has contended for victory in all three majors, finishing third in the Open and the US PGA before letting the Masters slip out of his hands.