Crunch time for McIlroy as Spieth and Lowry lie in wait

Squeaky bum time was Sir Alex Ferguson’s facetious way of describing those pressure packed moments when everything is on the line.

It’s not quite that way for Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth heading into the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai this week though a bout of food poisoning that he believes was caused by a sandwich he ordered in his room, was not the way McIlroy was hoping to begin a crucial week for his Race to Dubai chances.

The reigning European No 1 is going for his third Harry Vardon Trophy in four years with a 399,385 point lead over Danny Willett with Shane Lowry (617,476 behind), Louis Oosthuizen (709,488), Justin Rose (740,471), Branden Grace (1,110,197) his nearest rivals with three events worth 1.3m points each to the winner still remaining.

McIlroy is playing just two of them after the European Tour’s CEO Keith Pelley decided to give him a special exemption because of his debilitating ankle problem.

While he’s never won the HSBC Champions but having finished in the top six in each of his four previous appearances, the world No 3 is hoping he will have shrugged off his illness in time to win for the first time in six months.

“I was thinking of trying to play nine holes but I think that would do me more harm than good,” McIlroy said of his withdrawal from the Pro-Am with stomach cramps.

"It would be nice to see the golf course before tomorrow, but I’ve played it a few times. I didn’t play last year but I know the place well and JP has been out there, so it is better that I rest and get my energy up for tomorrow.

 “I’ve played well here every time I have played here. I’ve not finished outside the top six, so it has been a really, really good tournament for me. I’ve not won it, but I’ve been close. Hopefully if I can get through the first couple of days and play ok, I’ll be feeling a lot better at the weekend and I can make a run at it.

“I played well in Turkey and I felt like my game was in good shape. I was a little bit disappointed with how I played on Sunday – I didn’t really capitalise on any of the chances I gave myself and started hitting my iron shots left, which cost me. 

It was nice to feel in contention again and to feel that buzz and adrenaline of being in contention for a tournament. Hopefully I can get myself in that position again this week, but most importantly I need to get healthy first and if I can do that then concentrate on the golf.”

McIlroy believed he picked up the bug after ordering a club sandwich from his hotel room menu on Tuesday. 

“Maybe I should have gone for something far riskier,” he joked after tweeting a picture of the menu which showed the next item was eels.

He was clearly upset not to be able to swing a club in practice and after mising a key month of the season after picking up an ankle ligament injury playing football, it would be ironic if he lost the Race to Dubai becuse of a sandwich

“’I came out here thinking at least I’d be able to hit a few balls but even just making a couple of swings, my stomach feels too sore to try to even make another shot,” the 26 year old said. "I was going to play nine holes but I can see now it would do me more harm than good. So it’s just going to be another day of rest and hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow.”

McIlroy’s rivalry with Spieth and absentee US PGA winner and world No 1 Jason Day is the talk of 2015 and the big attractjon of 2016.

While Hank Haney told The Scotsman’s John Huggan that McIlroy’s admission that he was motivated by Spieth and Day was tantamount to an admission that he was not motivated after his stellar 2014 season, this week’s event might gift us a 2016 appetiser in the shape of a Rory-Jordan battle.

The pair were involved in a light-hearted twitter exchange on Monday in which McIlroy acknowledged the American’s superiority this season.

Spieth tweeted a picture of the pair on a billboard in Shanghai airport but got McIlroy’s twitter handle wrong.

”After the year you’ve had, I’ll let you off,” McIroy said in reply. 

Haney tipped Spieth to finish his career with a better record than Day or McIlroy, based on the fact that he is simply a better putter. 

Many believe that with both at 100 percent, McIlroy is more likely to win any head-to-head with either of his rivals.

That he needs that rivalry to keep him motivated is not surprising given that more than one top player has remarked, off the record, that McIlroy is more like Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods in terms of his work ethic.

Dedicated to his fitness right now and clearly the best driver of the ball in the game, he knows he cannot compete at the very top if his putting game is as ragged as it has been this year.

Little will have changed in that department since last week’s Turkish Airlines Open, where he 64th of 78 for putts per green in regulation (1.839) and 55th for putts per round (30.3) compared to 1.548 and 25.5 for top putter Peter Uihlein.

Lowry was just average on the greens in Turkey but having finished in the Top 10 for ball striking, he arrived in China confident he can make a dent in McIlroy’s Race to Dubai lead.

The Clara man also has next week’s BMW Masters in Lake Malaren to look forward to doing some damage in the money list before he gets to Dubai for the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, Dubai.

It’s all down to confidence and having won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August, the world No 17 sees everything through rose coloured spectacles these days.

“I am playing with confidence at the minute,” Lowry said as he left Turkey. “You saw where my ball was on the 12th (just in rrough near a bush and a fuse box). 

“Maybe 12 months ago that would have been in one of the bushes, it is easy to be like that [relaxed] when you are doing well in the rankings; fifth (now third) in the order of merit, Top-20 in the world. 

"I try not to think about it too much. I try to go about my business and I am a lot better than I was. It is about maturing as a player and a person.”

Asked if he could win before Dubai, he said: “There is no reason why I can’t go to compete next wee. It is my plan come this time next week that I have a chance to win that tournament. We will have to see how it goes, keep doing what I am doing.”

If his Akron win has moved him to a different level, he’s not going to start thinking about that now.

“Maybe it does, I still do the same things I did before I won it,” the Clara man said. “I still hang around with the same people, even on tour, go to dinner with the same people. 

"I try and go about my business the same way. When I’m out on the golf course? Yeah, I do think about it, it is great to be in the top-20 in the world and challenging for the Race to Dubai, things have never been as good. 

"Obviously I do think about it when I am not playing. But when I am out on the golf course, really I am just trying to shoot the best score that I can. 

“Maybe that’s my attitude and why it is so good. When I am struggling, more so Friday and Saturday, when I was not going well, to finish with a birdie, two under on last four yesterday, and the same the day before. It’s a big difference."