Matchplay. It’s a golfing fruit machine, a one-armed bandit ready to throw up myriad permutations and send the greatest player on the planet fumbling for another coin while the relative poor relation cashes in.
By rights, Rory McIlroy should be trembling a little in his spikes for today’s clash with his friend and amateur foursomes partner Shane Lowry given the hullabaloo that’s bound to accompany a potential first round loss to the 64th seed and the focus on his switch to Nike clubs this year.
But the world number one is relaxed after a long break. Missing the cut on his Nike debut in Abu Dhabi four weeks ago had a lot more to do with the indian than the arrows, he says.
Not only that, he’s made subtle changes to the clubs that gave him the most trouble in the Middle East, taking some stiffness out of his driver so he can achieve more spin and carry, and changing the configuration of his Nike Method putter by opting for a heavier head.
The clash of Lowry and McIlroy, team mates as boys, beautifully summarises their golfing journeys over the past six years.
When Lowry won the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur, world number 20 McIlroy was there was there to fete his pal at the finish, soaking him in champagne and even buying more bubbly for the press room on the Offaly man’s behalf.
“It’s pretty cool to think where we’ve come from,” McIlroy said, recalling their first meeting in the Boys Interpros at Warrenpoint nine years ago or their role in Ireland’s 2007 European Men’s Team Championship victory at Western Gailes. “It’ll be a lot of fun but it will be a shame for either of us to go home on the first day but I’ve got to put it out of my mind that we are quite close friends for 18 holes and try and beat him.”
What stands out more than anything for McIlroy was that memorable day at Baltray.
“It was unbelievable, an amateur comes in virtually unheard of and plays great in the conditions, and the celebration at the end when he beat Robert Rock in the playoff was pretty special,” he recalled.
And the champagne spraying celebrations? “I was getting absolutely soaked, as well. The weather was dreadful.”
Even though he broke his duck as a pro by winning the Portugal Masters last year, Baltray in 2009 is still the highlight of Lowry’s career so far.
Beating McIlroy, a player he admires hugely and a friend who has always been there to give advice when asked, would be special and a huge step up the ladder to where he believes he belongs.
“I think if I win, yeah, it’ll be pretty big back home, because no one is expecting me to win,” the 25-year old Clara man told a news conference. “I think the weather is not supposed to be too good tomorrow, which I don’t particularly mind. It’s supposed to be quite windy, maybe a bit wet. I’ve been playing in that for the last couple of weeks, so I’m actually quite used to it.
“In match play it’s whoever holes the putts is the key, really. I think from 15 feet and in is going to be key tomorrow, so if I can hole a few putts at the right time and put Rory under some pressure, that’s going to be key for me.”
Winning in Portugal convinced Lowry that he has the game to become a world class player. Winning today would confirm his arrival.
“To win my first event as a professional was huge for me, and it gave me a great deal of self-belief and confidence that I needed to kick on, and I feel like I can kick on now and become a top 50 in the world player, not even top 50, top 30, top 20, and compete in these big tournaments.
“You know, I do have a lot of self-belief and I believe in my own ability and am comfortable in myself. That just gave me that extra bit that I think I need to kick on now.”
Lowry was very much at ease in front of the US press, drawing laughs for his colourful description of the 72nd hole birdie by Patrick Reed at Pebble Beach that ensured his presence in Tucson this week.
SHANE LOWRY: “…He birdied the last hole from the beach, I think, in Pebble, so I suppose it was meant to be, one of those things. That putt just puked in the front door, as well. I’m lucky to be here, which is a big thing, as well.
Q. Who puked?
SHANE LOWRY: The putt just stuck in the front door, sorry.”
Asked if he had any edge over McIlroy because he knows him so well, Lowry could only be honest and say that no-one could make that claim.
Did they have anything in common?
“I used to have curly hair. (Laughter.) I don’t think there’s many, to be honest. I actually don’t know if there’s any. He plays golf. (Laughter.)”
Pressure aside, it’s a tall task for Lowry on a course that suits McIlroy’s game. And despite four weeks away from the game, the world No 1 says he’s confident that he is playing far better than he was in Abu Dhabi, where the Ryder Cup captaincy announcement and his Nike launch proved to be unwanted distractions.
“I’m actually much happier with how I’m swinging the club. The clubs were performing fine in Abu Dhabi, it was just the fact that I wasn’t swinging at my best,” he said. “But I did a lot of good work with Michael (Bannon) over the past sort of ten days, and I feel like I’ve turned a corner with my swing. I’ve got it back on track, and that’s ultimately what’s going to help me play better.”
Nothing seems to faze him these days and he keeps distractions to a minimum now by watching little golf on TV and reading even less about himself.
Yet there is still pride there and he bristles ever so slightly at mention of Nick Faldo’s description of his move to Nike as “risky”.
“Nick Faldo doesn’t know how I feel over the golf shot and I don’t know how he felt,” McIlroy said sternly. “But my guess is he was a little more analytically minded than I am.
“I try and keep things as simple as possible. If I see the ball going in the direction that I want in the flight that I want, then I’m happy. It feels good, and hopefully I can show that to everyone this week.”
His opinion is sought on every issue, including the spectre of drugs in golf following the Vijay Singh deer antler spray controversy.
“I think golf is clean,” McIlroy said. “Obviously Vijay wasn’t aware that he was taking anything wrong or he was taking anything that was banned… I don’t see any sort of drug out there for that could really help a golfer across the board… and if someone does take something wrong, I think it’s an honest mistake.”