By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
Rory McIlroy is about as Irish as they come. The accent. The fair skin. An innate ability to play well in the wind.
Well, two out of three isn’t bad.
For someone who grew up in Holywood, a small town of 12,000 tucked along an inlet just off the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland, McIlroy’s game is about as Irish as apple pie.
Yet Boy Wonder, fresh off his historic win at the U.S. Open, is one of the heavy favorites to win this year’s Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, a course that runs along the southeastern coast of England and a place where you can experience four seasons of weather in one round.
But just how much of a favorite should he be? Even McIlroy admits that links courses aren’t exactly his cup of tea (save for historic St. Andrews and some cherished memories he’s had there with his father), nor are they best suited for his very much American style of play.
“I do prefer this sort of golf where you've got to fly it in the air,” McIlroy said. “I love golf courses the likes of [Augusta National], Quail Hollow, Akron, where we play the WGC; golf courses that are tree-lined and give you a little bit of definition off the tee.”
Trees at Royal St. George’s? You can count them on one hand.
“If you asked me to choose, say, between a great links course like Turnberry and a great parkland course like Medinah, then I'd say Medinah,” McIlroy said recently in Sport magazine. “I grew up on a parkland course; it just suits my style of play more."
Even McIlroy’s own agent, Chubby Chandler, isn’t exactly glowing over his No. 1 client’s chances on a course where the surface is closer to that of the moon than it is the lush fairways of Congressional, where McIlroy became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open in 88 years.
“I would say Rory might find the Open quite difficult,” Chandler told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday. “You might find him struggle at St George's, it's not his sort of golf. Firm and bouncy with a bit of wind wouldn't be ideal for him, but I would say watch out for him at Atlanta [at the PGA Championship in August]. That'll suit him down to the ground.
“If it was flat calm at the Open, Rory would have a chance but it probably won't be.”
Why is that? Consider this phrase: Tee it high and let it fly.
OK, so McIlroy grew up watching and idolizing not John Daly but Tiger Woods. Still, his ball flight is more Phil Mickelson -- and we all know how Lefty has fared in this championship, with no wins and just one top-10 in 17 Open starts. The theory is that Lefty's high ball flight leaves him vulnerable to the Open winds.
There is no greater example of McIlroy’s futility in the wind than last year’s Open at St. Andrews.
McIlroy opened with a record-tying 63 on a benign and blissful day at the Home of Golf, only to be blown away 24 hours later when he carded an 80 on the wind-whipped landscape.
Still, he tied for third.
Ah, Mother Nature giveth and taketh away in this tournament.
McIlroy’s hardly the only victim of such a severe turn in the weather and score -- remember Woods getting wiped out by sideways rain and a third-round 81 in 2002 at Muirfield?
In 2009 at Turnberry, McIlroy tied for 47th with three rounds in the 70s. Likewise in 2007 at Carnoustie, where McIlroy tied for 42nd as an amateur.
That’s not to say McIlroy’s game doesn’t travel, or in this case play well at home.
At age 16, McIlroy set a course record at Royal Portrush, a links course hard against the exposed northern coast of Northern Ireland, with a 61.
McIlroy is also oft to play Royal County Down when he’s at home in Belfast.
“I've played a lot of links golf growing up,” McIlroy said. “I feel as if I've got all the shots that are required to play good golf on links courses.
“It's sort of like riding a bicycle; once you're on it you sort of somehow remember all the shots you need for it, little pitch-and-runs and little punch shots into the wind and so forth. I feel very comfortable on links.”
Just how comfortable we’ll find out this week and in the many more to come.