North­ern light McIl­roy back in the groove at Bri­tish Mas­ters

Ul­ster­man looks to break his duck at Bri­tish Mas­ters Third round of 64 puts him two shots off the pace

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By James Cor­ri­gan

So much for claim­ing at the start of the week that he would not be “too both­ered” if his eight-year streak of lift­ing at least one ti­tle a season came to an end – Rory McIl­roy sud­denly has that look in his eye again. That is what a round of 64 can do to a man.

It was the Ul­ster­man’s joint-low­est score of 2017 and sent him hurtling from eight shots off the lead to within two off the pace set by Swe­den’s Robert Karls­son. McIl­roy had in­sisted that “this will be a stress-free week”, but now there hap­pens to be the kind of stress for which he lives.

“Yeah, the com­pet­i­tive juices are now flow­ing,” McIl­roy said after a round fea­tur­ing six birdies and 12 pars. “You get your­self into con­tention and then you do start to think about things and how great it would be to get a win.

“I’m also play­ing next week at the Dun­hill [Links], and silverware would send me into my three-and-a-half month break from com­pe­ti­tion very nicely in­deed.”

McIl­roy was fin­ished be­fore 3pm and ex­pected to log on later to find him­self “four or five back”. But with the soft greens de­te­ri­o­rat­ing he is rather closer. Tyrrell Hat­ton, the overnight leader, could only man­age a 71 after his first two rounds of 63 and 65.

Ian Poulter will fancy his chances be­cause his 68 – to take him into a tie for sec­ond on 11 un­der – could have been far worse. Some­how, he managed to go through the first four holes in one un­der de­spite not hit­ting a sin­gle green. He dou­ble-bo­geyed the fifth but scram­bled four more birdies to put him­self along­side coun­try­men Hat­ton and Graeme Storm, the Scot Richie Ram­say and Ire­land’s Paul Dunne.

Poulter vented his frus­tra­tions on the Euro­pean Tour’s mo­bile phone pol­icy after an er­rant click caused him to find the water on the par-three fifth, where he posted a dou­ble bo­gey. “What are we do­ing?” Poulter said. “We’ve al­lowed them all to take pic­tures and videos and tell them to put them on silent, and it doesn’t work does it? You get dis­tracted on the wrong hole at the wrong time and it’s re­ally f ****** an­noy­ing. I’m an­gry and am going to con­tinue to be an­gry un­til I wake up.”

As a young player, Poulter would pride him­self on win­ning ev­ery season, un­til his five-year streak dried up in 2005. That was the year when McIl­roy, as a 16-year-old am­a­teur, made his de­but in a pro­fes­sional event at this same tour­na­ment. Even though he shot 82 and 81 to miss the cut by miles on that oc­ca­sion, it was by then ob­vi­ous that the bushy-haired Belfast boy would be a pro­lific cham­pion. And a dozen years on, it does seem on the sur­real side of un­likely that McIl­roy could go an en­tire cal­en­dar year with­out a “W” next to his name.

Granted, there would be mit­i­ga­tion, most no­tably with the rib in­jury he suf­fered be­fore his first event in Jan­uary. Yet such is the scale of McIl­roy’s ta­lent that he should still be able to lo­cate the win­ner’s en­clo­sure at 80 per cent. That

he has failed so far has been be­cause of a per­fect storm in which he was also forced to change clubs, be­cause of Nike’s with­drawal from the equip­ment mar­ket, and then felt obliged to part ways with JP Fitzger­ald, his cad­die of nine years and all four of his ma­jor ti- tles, be­cause of on-course ten­sions.

In con­trast, his life has been bliss­ful out­side the ropes after his marriage to Erica Stoll, but as a pro­fes­sional it is un­der­stand­able why he has been so keen to wave good­bye to 2017.

McIl­roy will take the long­est en­forced break of his ca­reer, be­gin­ning with six to eight weeks of in­ac­tion to en­sure re­cov­ery from the rib com­plaint. From there he will fo­cus on what he needs to do to re-climb the moun­tain and de­cide on a per­ma­nent cad­die. His best friend, Harry Di­a­mond, has ful­filled the du­ties over the past few months but both have re­alised an experienced bag­man is in or­der.

So, plenty to do in an off-season which he states, ve­he­mently, “will not be a hol­i­day”, but first there is this 11th-hour mis­sion. And with re­spect to Karls­son, Poulter, Hat­ton and lo­cal­man Storm – and in­deed tour­na­ment host Lee West­wood on nine un­der after an in­dif­fer­ent 70 – there is one name the ma­jor­ity will be hop­ing to pre­vail.

McIl­roy is the hero these fan­tas­tic crowds de­serve. Their fig­ure has swollen over the 50,000 mark and is al­ready guar­an­teed to be the big­gest in the 71-year his­tory of the Bri­tish Mas­ters. McIl­roy is cer­tainly ap­pre­cia­tive. “They have been tremen­dous,” he said. “The last cou­ple of tour­na­ments I’ve been off pretty early at the week­ends and had 50 peo­ple fol­low­ing me. But there’s been thousands out there – and that’s helped. I’ll be in the last half a dozen groups to­mor­row and I’m look­ing for­ward to the sup­port again.” There can be no doubt about the suc­cess of this week. It is the first big event the North East has staged since the Seve Tro­phy 12 years ago and they have proved that the ap­petite is there. Alas, while the fans might be ul­tra­keen, the spon­sors are not, as McIl­roy ex­plained. “It does seem daft, but it’s money,” he said. “It’s hard to get spon­sors rolling with £5-6mil­lion a year to fund these events in Bri­tain. That’s why the Tour goes else­where. “It’s the way of the world. I do wish there were more tour­na­ments up here, though.”

Back in the swing: Rory McIl­roy tees off on the way to a birdie at the par-three fifth hole at the Bri­tish Mas­ters in New­cas­tle, as he tries to avoid fin­ish­ing the season with­out a tour­na­ment vic­tory for the first time in eight years

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