An Irish flavor in McIlroy-McDowell group
DORAL, Fla. – It felt like a day at Royal Portrush.
Except, of course, that it was about 40 degrees too warm and there was too much sun and not enough wind and no rain and we could have had a few more hills and better Guinness and then there was the Bermuda grass . . .
Actually, speaking of the grass, “I’d change (it),” Rory McIlroy said. “It’s a little scrappy and it’s a little scruffy.”
Scrappy and scruffy; got it.
And we’ll agree about all the other aspects of the day that weren’t quite Royal Portrush-like, but in the pairing of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, the day had a distinctive flavor of Northern Ireland, complete with camaraderie and good fun.
“Nice to go out there and just play with a friend,” McIlroy said. “Sort of pretty relaxed.”
Said McDowell, who at 32 is like a big brother to the 22-year-old McIlroy: “It was obviously fun to play with him and fun to watch him doing what he was doing.”
And what McIlroy was doing was plugging a bit of electricity into a warm and lazy day, his six birdies on the outward nine giving fans at the WGC-Cadillac Championship something to cheer about. From 2 under and 10 off the lead at the start, McIlroy was out in 30 and at 8 under he was four off a lead held by Bubba Watson, who was still on the practice range.
Certainly the fans agreed, and nowhere was the appeal of McIlroy more apparent than at the ninth green. Though McDowell had hit his tee shot at the 174-yard par-3 to 8 feet, McIlroy’s tee shot to 15 feet seemed to elicit a bigger roar. Then when McIlroy knocked down his birdie to turn in 30, it seemed almost ho-hum, as if the 2010 U.S. Open champion were taking space away from the 2011 U.S. Open champion.
Even when McDowell converted his birdie roll to turn in 32, you wonder whether anyone noticed.
“Way to go, Big Mac,” a fan shouted to the chaps as they exited the back of the ninth green and turned left toward the 10th tee.
“That’s me, Big Mac,” McDowell said to his protege. “You’re Big-Time Mac.”
Roger that, because for all the slices of flavor to McIlroy, here is the one that excites: The bigger the stage and the warmer the spotlight, the more he seems to thrive. Exhibit A being his U.S. Open triumph just two months after his Augusta National meltdown a year ago? Many would say yes, but McDowell isn’t so sure that last week is when his young friend came of age.
Oh, when all is said and done and McIlroy is retired from the game, chances are his 2012 Honda Classic victory won’t rank among the most memorable, but neither should it be overlooked at this point in time. Despite his major triumph last summer at Congressional Country Club, McIlroy was seen in some corners as a young man who still had to prove he could close the deal, that he could finish in the face of pressure.
He did that at PGA National, answering the roars of Tiger Woods’ 62 with a birdie at the 13th, then five workmanlike pars to seal a two-stroke victory.
Push forward one week later and McIlroy – still trying to ease down off the clouds from being elevated to the game’s No. 1 spot – slammed a 5-wood from 265 yards to 17 feet, slipped home the putt for eagle, and suddenly he was 8 under on his round, 10 under for the tournament, and just two off the lead.
He was a someone who could make the leaders take note.
At least that was what all of the numbers on the scoreboard said. The truth that sat beneath the surface, but one which all players were aware of, was this: On this day of pulsating heat and only puffs of wind, the Blue Monster has less bite than a newborn, so if McIlroy had designs on the top of the leaderboard he was going to have to continue his charge.
Which he did at the par-5 12th, his pitch from an awkward stance in bothersome rough next to a bunker in front of the green leaving him a tap-in birdie.
“You know, when he eagled 10 and birdied 12, obviously it was game on for the old magic number,” McDowell said.
Yes, the number was 59 and yes, McIlroy gave it more than a fleeting thought.
“Your mind is going to start thinking,” McIlroy said. “You know (the par 3) 15 is a birdie chance; 16 and 17 (too).”
No, he didn’t fear getting ahead of himself, didn’t think he was jinxing himself or anything like that. “It’s a good thing,” McIlroy said. “You set yourself a target, and you try and get there.”
Heck, why not. He was 9 under for 12 holes, and if there were anything negative to that, it’s that his good mate from the land of major champions was feeling so inferior despite himself being 4 under.
“Felt like I was shooting 81,” McDowell said.
Though they didn’t know it at the time, their birdies at the par-5 12th were the last trumpets of good cheer on a day that had started so brightly. By the time they trudged to the 13th tee, McIlroy and McDowell knew that the leaders were on the course and birdies were going up everywhere. Then, McIlroy’s momentum came to a screaming halt, courtesy of two errant drives. At 14, he pulled his tee shot into the bunker, fatted his escape shot and failed to make a 12-footer. Then at 16, he was wide right and couldn’t find the putting green, even from 60 yards, thanks to that darn scrappy and scruffy rough.
Shortly thereafter, their work was done and neither McIlroy, at 65, nor McDowell, at 67, were entirely ecstatic with their rounds. They had stumbled to the finish line, yes, and it was a day when Doral felt like a par 68, not 72.
But the companionship was all they could have asked for, and at least for two-thirds of the round, things were borderline magical for McIlroy, and McDowell was thrilled for the front-row seat.