McIl­roy sends an early warn­ing

World No 2 quickly re­gains rhythm, de­clares him­self ready to chal­lenge

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

AF­TER get­ting to grips with the Glen­dower lay­out in front of a big fol­low­ing gallery yes­ter­day, hot favourite Rory McIl­roy de­clared him­self ready to chal­lenge for the SA Open ti­tle.

The world No 2 teed it up around 6.30am yes­ter­day to shake off the De­cem­ber rust and get to know the course he will hope­fully spend the next four days play­ing.

In front of a huge gallery, in­clud­ing former cricket star Jac­ques Kal­lis, he thrilled with his dis­tance and de­meanour, once again win­ning over the fans. Af­ter­wards he said he was keen to be in the mix come Sun­day af­ter­noon.

“I know if I play the way I can, I’ll have a good chance to win,” said the four-time Ma­jor win­ner and cur­rent PGA Tour FedEx Cup cham­pion.

He said his game wasn’t in bad shape de­spite chang­ing clubs re­cently and em­ploy­ing a putting coach in Eng­land’s Phil Kenyon.

“I’m feel­ing okay with my game. I’ve spent a lot of time in Dubai re­cently, be­fore and af­ter Christ­mas, hit­ting balls and prac­tic­ing.

“I got here this morn­ing hav­ing not hit a ball in four days, so the first few holes I played to­day (yes­ter­day) weren’t great, but once I got into rhythm, things got bet­ter. Once I got go­ing, I hit it well and made a few birdies,” said the North­ern Ir­ish­man.

“To­day was re­ally all about me get­ting to know the course, know­ing what lines to take and see­ing which clubs to hit off the tees. I felt re­ally com­fort­able to­wards the end of my round.”

McIl­roy said it would be cru­cial to find the fair­ways. “There’s been a lot of rain so the course is soft. That means there’s a pre­mium on find­ing the fair­ways. If you can hit them, you’re go­ing to score well, es­pe­cially with the greens hold­ing.”

Re­gard­ing the new clubs in the bag this week and the ap­point­ment of Kenyon, who’s been tasked with fix­ing McIl­roy’s mid-sea­son putting woes of last year, he said: “I hit rock bot­tom at the PGA Cham­pi­onship (when he missed his sec­ond Ma­jor cut in the year). I felt lost, so I de­cided to work with Phil through the fi­nals of the FedEx Cup, but I didn’t ex­pect the changes to come so quickly.

“I’m feel­ing a lot more com­fort­able putting again, while as for the clubs, they’re what I’ve picked for this week and it could be dif­fer­ent next week. I’m in a nice po­si­tion to try dif­fer­ent things. I’ll see how it goes this week.

“It felt good out there to­day, but you never re­ally know un­til you have a score­card in your hands; play­ing com­pet­i­tively is dif­fer­ent. It’s the per­son at the end of the club that mat­ters, so as long as I’m swing­ing well, that’s what mat­ters.”

He spoke frankly about his close friend­ship with South African golf leg­end Ernie Els and how the two are work­ing to­gether for the bet­ter­ment of hu­man­ity.

“Ernie did me a favour to play at the Ir­ish Open a few years ago and I’m now re­pay­ing the favour by play­ing in South Africa. He helped me out with my foun­da­tion and he’s ob­vi­ously in­volved with ‘Els for Autism’ and I’ll do what­ever I can to be of as­sis­tance to that great cause. I’ve be­come close to his fam­ily and am aware of all the things they’re do­ing in autism; it’s just in­cred­i­ble the work they’re do­ing.

“I’m hon­oured to be here to help out once again. There is noth­ing bet­ter in life than to be in a po­si­tion to help peo­ple in any way, peo­ple who’re in need. It’s a role I take very se­ri­ously.”

But while McIl­roy will be hop­ing to be top dog this week, there’s a tiger lurk­ing. That’s Tiger Woods, who re­turned to the game at the end of last year af­ter an ab­sence of over a year, and McIl­roy said he hoped the 14-time Ma­jor win­ner was now over his in­jury prob­lems.

“I was as in­trigued as every­one to see what he did in his come­back,” said McIl­roy. “His swing looked good, he showed flashes of good golf, but he also looked happy and that’s im­por­tant. You’ve got to have fun out there and hope­fully we con­tinue to see that.

“If he’s at peace with him­self and stays healthy, there’s no rea­son why he shouldn’t play good golf un­til he de­cides to hang up the clubs.” HOT SHOT: North­ern Ire­land’s world No2 Rory McIl­roy is happy with his new-look game head­ing into to­mor­row’s SA Open, for which he is the favourite.

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