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
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