Rory McIlroy goes through his preparations at Royal St George's
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A decade ago, Rory McIlroy ventured out with Darren Clarke here on the Wednesday practice round and helped inspire his older countryman to win The Open. This year, the duo will once again take to Royal St George’s for an eve of championship final warm-up, but this time it could be Clarke acting as the motivator.
In 2011, McIlroy and Clarke linked up to play a “friendly” fourball better-ball against the South African duo of Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. The younger trio had all lifted major titles in the previous 12 months and proceeded to rib Clarke. The then 42-year-old later conceded that their taunts provided him with yet more determination to break his own major void.
“Darren did not look like he was about to win the Open during that round,” McIlroy said. “It’s funny how it can turn around so quickly. I can take inspiration from that this week.”
Clarke has known McIlroy since he was a teenager and acted as a mentor until he joined the paid ranks. Of course, Clarke will offer whatever advice he can to McIlroy and there can be little doubt he could do with the gee up. The 32-year-old missed the cut at last week’s Scottish Open and comes into the British major outside the world’s top 10 for the first time in 12 years.
McIlroy is clearly ready to take positives from anywhere and two years ago, when the Open was last held, he crashed out at Royal Portrush after a first-round 79. However, a month later he won the FedEx Cup in Atlanta and as well as securing $15 million, he was on his way to claiming back the world No 1 tag.
Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke with their 2011 major championships
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"I didn’t dwell on Portrush too much,” McIlroy said. “It was tough but the great thing about golf is there’s always next week. You can always get back on the horse and that’s what I did. I moved forward, set my sights on other things.
"I ended up winning the FedExCup, so it gave me a few million reasons to feel better. I won a World Golf Championship in China. I got to No 1 at the start of 2020 and then the pandemic hit and the world sort of changed. If anything Portrush was a catalyst for me to play some of my best golf."
The 2014 Open Champion was in an optimistic mood in the media centre here and was even prepared to trot out the old line of the chances of a missed cut somehow proving a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to arrive here in Kent early and puit in some extra work with coach Pete Cowen.
"You never want to miss a cut but as missed cuts go, this wasn’t necessarily a bad one," McIlroy said. "I wasn’t planning on playing the Scottish Open a few weeks ago anyway. It would have been great to stay and play an extra couple days in Scotland but to be down here and get a few holes in on Saturday, play a full round on Sunday, felt like I got a bit of a head start on the rest of the field, which feels good.
"I didn’t even play any holes yesterday. I played 11 today and will play 18 tomorrow, but it will not feel like I’ve trying to cram in my preparation. I’ve hit the ball really well the last few days. I figured something out on Sunday and feel good about where I am going into the week."
The Open round one: Three groups to watch
The only negative seemed to be the draw for the first two rounds. In truth, it was not at all kind to McIlroy. He likes an early start in the first round to post an early number, but he will have to wait until 3.21pm. That is just four groups short of the graveyard shift – Sweden’s Rikard Kalberg, Japan’s Ryutaro Nagano and England’s Nicholas Poppleton, the 27-year-old from Sheffield who works part-time as a supermarket delivery driver, go out at 4.16pm.
And as if that late tee-time is not bad enough for McIlroy, he could be caught in the crossfire of Patrick Reed and Cam Smith, the American and Australian who famously fell out at the 2019 Presidents Cup. They reportedly purposefully bumped into each other when involved in separate games in the match between the US and the Internationals at Royal Melbourne.
Smith had called Reed’s camera-angle explanation for his two-stroke penalty in a bunker at the previous week’s Hero World Challenge as "b——t” and urged the home fans to target the player who likes to be known as Captain America. "I hope so,” Smith said. “I don’t have any sympathy for anyone that cheats.”
Reed then accused Smith of “‘making it personal” and the row has never been truly resolved. McIlroy will hope the fireworks stay in the box here.