Rory McIlroy’s unwillingness to adapt his game to links golf left some of the sport’s elder statesmen unimpressed, with two major winners insisting Wednesday that his attitude must change if he is to join the pantheon of greats.
Less than a month after producing spellbinding golf to win the U.S. Open at Congressional by eight shots for a first major title, McIlroy was brought back down to earth at last week’s wet and windy British Open at Royal St. George’s.
Closing rounds of 74 and 73 left the 22-year-old Northern Irishman not only tied for 25th but disillusioned with the harsh nature of links golf.
Speaking from the heart immediately after his final round, McIlroy said he wasn’t a fan of tournaments where the “outcome is predicted so much by the weather,” adding that “there’s no point in changing your game for one week a year.”
Battle-hardened veterans of the senior circuit gave his comments short shrift, with 1991 Masters champion Ian Woosnam and three-time major winner Nick Price saying McIlroy had to be ready to adapt his game to links conditions.
“He’s only a young kid, he’s going to say the wrong things every now and then and he’s probably now thinking, ‘What the hell have I said,”’ Woosnam said. “Of course, to be a true golfer, you have to be able to play around the world, play in different kind of golf conditions. Tiger (Woods) adapted, (Jack) Nicklaus adapted, (Arnold) Palmer adapted. They all adapted. He needs to adapt. It’s his age but he’s got the ability to do whatever he wants to do.”
Price, who mastered links conditions to win the British Open at Turnberry in 1994, was surprised that McIlroy held such views given that he grew up playing so much links golf in Northern Ireland.
“He has to get his mind set right for that -- he’s going to have 20 or 30 Open Championships in his career and he doesn’t want to have that attitude,” said Price, the Zimbabwean who also won two PGA Championships. “He’d better get out there and start liking those courses and figure out a way to play.
“If he’s a good enough player, he will do that. Every great player adapts to the conditions. He may not like it as much as playing on parkland courses but he will learn, I guarantee it.”
McIlroy did find an unexpected ally in Tom Watson, however.
The 61-year-old American is a five-time winner of the British Open and widely regarded as the finest exponent of links golf around, demonstrating his prowess last week by producing a brilliant 72 in horrific conditions in the third round.
Still, Watson knows exactly what McIlroy is going through. He’s been there himself.
“Honestly, he sounded like I did when I was his age playing links golf. I did not like links golf. I did not like the bounce. I did not like the firmness of the greens, and the wind so much, and I didn’t like the uncertainty,” Watson said. “When I hit a shot the way I thought it should go, it should stop. In American golf, it stops where you want it.
“He’ll change. He’ll get to a point where he’ll understand the difficulties in the way that you have to manage yourself on links golf courses.”
Asked how many years it took him to come round to links golf, Watson replied: “Four. It just so happened I won two of them.”
Like Watson, Woosnam said he believes McIlroy’s attitude will change.
“I think it’s difficult for the kid. Everyone was comparing him to Tiger Woods but at the end of the day he’s only won three tournaments. And one of them was a major,” said the 53-year-old Welshman, who captained Europe to Ryder Cup success in 2006.
“I think we’ve got to ease off on the kid. He’s got to develop.”
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