Rory eyes big game in SA Open - targets world No 1 return next week

Rory eyes big game in SA Open - targets world No 1 return next week
 Rory McIlroy is "honoured" to play for Ernie Els in South Africa this week

Rory McIlroy is "honoured" to play for Ernie Els in South Africa this week

He’s one of golf’s big three but while he spent a few days spying Africa’s big five and has his sights set on returning to world No 1 this month, Rory McIlroy’s early season sojourn to South Africa is all about one thing — the first major of the year.

After rescuing what was looking like a decidedly average 2016 by stealing the FedEx Cup from under Dustin Johnson’s nose with two wins in the Playoffs, the 27-year old admitted that trying to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods by completing the career grand slam by winning the Masters is the big goal for the first few months of 2017.

That said, the three-time former Race to Dubai champion admits that having come up short in his two previous attempts to complete his major “set”, he knows that the longer the wait goes on, the tougher it will become.

"The more years without me winning it, I realise that it's going to become tougher but there is so much more to be achieved, whether it's in the majors or following up a FedEx Cup success with another one or trying to win the Race to Dubai again," he explained on the eve of the BMW SA Open hosted by City of Ekurhuleni.

Nobody knows this better than tournament host Ernie Els, whose participation in the 2014 Irish Open at Royal County Down is being reciprocated by McIlroy  at Glendower Golf Club in the Johannesburg suburbs this week.

"The work that Ernie does and the school they are building is absolutely incredible and for him to come and help my foundation and then to be able to repay the favour is something I am more than happy and actually honoured to do," McIlroy said.

In truth, it’s the perfect soft opening to 2017 for McIlroy, who has radically overhauled his golf bag after some exhaustive testing in the Middle East before Christmas.

A free agent now that Nike is out of the club business, he’s changed almost everything and gone for the Callaway Epic Sub Zero driver, TaylorMade M2 fairway woods, the Custom Callaway Apex MB irons, Titleist Vokey SM6 wedges, an Odyssey putter and, crucially, the 2017 Titleist Pro V1x golf ball.

The work that Ernie does and the school they are building is absolutely incredible and for him to come and help my foundation and then to be able to repay the favour is something I am more than happy and actually honoured to do.
— Rory McIlroy

"I've decided what to start the year with which is a bit of Callaway stuff and a bit of Titleist stuff although I'm still trying some Taylormade woods out,” McIlroy said.

“But I think the clubs thing could be an ever-changing process in 2017. I'm really happy with the new golf ball. It's basically a matter of fitting everything around the golf ball.”

While he had teething trouble when he first moved to Nike, he has far more control over his bag now and he sounded confident about his chance of regaining the world number one spot from Jason Day before the end of January.

“If I play well this week, I have a chance going to Abu Dhabi to regain the number one spot,” said McIlroy, who also plans to marry fiancée Erica Stoll this year.

As for his love story with Augusta National, that’s been tempestuous since his final round collapse in 2011.

If, like Els, he fails to win the Masters, he may look back on that final round 80 as one of the worst days of his life. Instead, he prefers to look at it as the day he learned enough to win four majors in his next 15 major starts.

"If 2011 hadn't happened, would I be standing here having won a US Open, two PGAs and an Open Championship? You never know," he asked.

Only time will tell and after his disappointments in the majors, he’s determined to do better this term.

At Augusta, he started slowly and ended up 10th behind Danny Willett before sandwiching a distant share of fifth behind Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson in The Open at Royal Troon between a pair of  missed cuts in the US Open and the US PGA. 

 Rory McIlroy during practice for the BMW SA Open

Rory McIlroy during practice for the BMW SA Open

To that end he’s decided he needs to ease up on himself in the big ones be less afraid of losing them on day one.

"I need to start majors better and maybe that will start by putting a little less pressure on myself and going out and free-wheeling a bit more," he said.

"In the last year or so in the opening rounds of majors, I was a little bit tight and tentative instead of going out and playing my game.”

So much depends on his putting and his new relationship with putting expert Phil Kenyon, a disciple of the late Harold Swash, was they key to turning 2016 into a success.

If the new hardware in his bag works well and his putter is hot, McIlroy may well go to Abu Dhabi next week with a real shot of becoming No 1 again for the first time since September 2015.

Will the changes work? 

”You never know until you study a card after a round,” McIlroy said of his new clubs. “Besides, the golfer swinging the club is more important than the club itself." 

McIlroy and world No 45 Andy Sulivan are the only two members of the world’s top 50 in action this week, although the field features major winners in Els and Retief Goosen and former Ryder Cup captains Nick Faldo and Darren Clarke. 

With South Africans Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Charl Schwartzel all controversial absentees, McIlroy is drawn with George Coetzee and rising local star Brandon Stone, who was an impressive winner of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at the end of last year.

“Rory is by far the class player in the field in terms of world rankings,” Els said. “He’s going to be the guy everybody will be looking up at, or to beat, or to see how he’s doing.

“I cannot tell you how excited I am, the field and the spectators probably to have Rory playing. He’s done such great things the last couple of years.

“Brandon has great success in South Africa and I’m sure he’s got unbelievable confidence after Leopard Creek. Then you have George Coetzee and Richard Sterne, so we’ll see. 

“Golf is a funny game. There will be a lot of rust that has to come off a lot of guys’ golf games. It will be a tough one to call.” 

McIlroy is a big fans of Els, having started his career in the same stable under Chubby Chandler.

"I first played with Ernie at the Singapore Open in 2008 and my caddie JP caddied for Ernie before me so we have always had a decent relationship," he told the European Tour.

"Ernie was the first big, big name I had played with as a pro. I was nervous but I remember teeing off the tenth tee and I hit three wood past his driver and I thought ‘this is alright!’.

"I always remember that and also the fact that Ernie lost to Jeev (Milkha Singh) in a play-off that week and we were part of the same management company so we went out that night for dinner and a few drinks and had a great time.

"That was the beginning of the relationship and it’s kind of continued from there. I have always been a huge fan of his game but I am a bigger fan of the man and to have been able to get to know him and Liezl and the kids over the past few years in Florida has been great.

"Anything I can do to help Ernie I always will. I actually named my first dog after Ernie – I called him Theo. It’s been a good relationship."

One of Els' off-course passions is his Els for Autism foundation and in 2015 it opened a Centre of Excellence in Florida which continues to expand.
Els and wife Liezl began the foundation after their son Ben was diagnosed with the condition and McIlroy is delighted to do anything he can to support the foundation's work.
"I am fully aware of everything that Ernie is doing with Els for Autism," he said.
"I know Ben very well and the whole family well because we live so close to each other in Florida.
"The work that Ernie does and the school they are building is absolutely incredible and for him to come and help my foundation and then to be able to repay the favour is something I am more than happy and actually honoured to do."