On a comfortably cool November night in 2007, I happened to be present when Hubert Green was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. “There,” I suggested mischievously, “isn’t it nice to be finally rewarded for winning the Irish Open 30 years ago.” This, to a player who also happened to have won the 1977 U.S. Open and the 1985 PGA Championship.
Green chuckled. “Oh, I loved Portmarnock, a great golf course with the wind, the pop-up shots, the horrible breaks,” he mused. “The frustration of it all. That’s what golf’s about. It takes a real man to overcome that.” Later this month on Killarney’s parkland terrain, Rory McIlroy will be hoping that, in golfing terms, he’s man enough to match what Green did during a memorable summer in 1977.
The recently crowned champion at Congressional is, in fact, being hailed as the possible saviour of the Irish Open, which won’t have a title sponsor when it returns to the Killeen Course on July 28th to 31st. In fact, George O’Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, has compared the 22-year-old to Elvis Presley, because of the pop-star excitement he generates wherever he goes.
Among McIlroy’s activities last week were a visit to Tour headquarters at Wentworth and another to Wimbledon, where he was photographed with Andy Murray and former champion John McEnroe. And when talking golf, he brought little joy to Tim Finchem by pouring further cold water on a possible renewal of his PGA Tour membership. His manager, Chubby Chandler, made it clear that the player would not be re-joining the Tour while the 15-tournament requirement remained in place.
“It’s a very tough one because I’m very comfortable living in Northern Ireland and being with friends and family,” said McIlroy. “If I joined (PGA Tour), I’d feel like I was giving part of that up. I’m not prepared to move away from home yet and base myself in the U.S. full-time.”
As it happens, his home, just south of Belfast, is not only about friends and family. It is also about the finest private practice facility in Ireland, which he clearly used very effectively when preparing for Congressional. Particular confidence was gained from the creeping-bent green which replicated the putting surfaces he negotiated so well en route to the U.S. Open.
Covering 14 acres on the grounds of McIlroy’s home, the facility was designed by John Clarkin, head of the Dublin company Turfgrass Consultancy, which was responsible for the original specifications of Chambers Bay, scene of last year’s U.S. Amateur. Clarkin is also the official agronomy consultant to this year’s Solheim Cup at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Killeen Castle in September.
McIlroy’s facility became fully operational only in late April, which meant it wasn’t part of his preparation for Augusta National. But after his success at Congressional, it will be significant in his preparation for next week’s Open Championship at Royal St. Georges’s. “There are four greens, one of which is a mixture of A4 and A1, which is effectively the equivalent of the Augusta National greens,” said Clarkin on Saturday. “It’s only just grown in and the speeds are increasing all the time.”
He went on: “For the British Open, we decided to regulate the speed of another, meadowgrass (poa annua) green below 11.0 on the Stimpmeter because this is the sort of pace we’re expecting the R&A to settle on. If they were any faster, pin positions on the undulating surfaces would become quite limited in strong winds.
“We also decided to firm things up quite significantly so that balls pitching into it don’t necessarily create a pitch-mark, again with a view to replicating conditions at Sandwich. And for obvious reasons, we’ve decided to let the outer rough areas of fescue grow a bit. Another help for Rory should be the fescue approaches we have to three greens.”
Describing the actual construction of the facility, Clarkin referred to an original driving area with a tee at 290 yards. “We had to revise that when Rory’s drives were carrying the boundary hedge,” he said. “Now the tee is back at 340.”
Late on the Sunday afternoon at Carnoustie in 2007, with the amateur medal securely in his pocket, McIlroy volunteered to keep 4-year-old Paddy Harrington amused while mother, Caroline, attempted to follow her husband’s progress in a play-off for the Open against Sergio Garcia. “Not many 18-year-olds would have done that,” said the champion.
Five months later, he was a guest at the Harrington home outside Dublin for a photo shoot. If it were possible to take anything away with him, what would be on top of his list?
“The Claret Jug,” McIlroy replied with a grin, pointing to the grand old trophy which now had giant-sized, artificial ladybirds on stems, sticking out of it. But almost immediately, he added: “The thing I’d really love is Padraig’s short-game area outside, which is fantastic compared with my tour green of 1,500 square feet.”
Now that the more attainable of those two objectives has been achieved, his hope must be that it can greatly help him secure the other one.