From the WGC American Express Strokeplay
Those of you who have read my thoughts before, will know how highly I rate the World Golf Championships. They’re very prestigious events and just behind the Majors in stature. So, you won’t be surprised, then, when I say that I consider it very important to perform well at this week’s American Express tournament – even more so because it is in Ireland.
On home soil
This week we’re playing at Mount Juliet – home soil for the likes of Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and myself. As Irishmen, there is added pressure, but we’re getting used to it. We have several key events in Ireland each year such as the Irish Open and the European Open, so we’re getting used to handling the pressure of playing in front of an expectant home support.
I was thinking about it the other day – would I prefer to win an Irish Open or a World Golf Championship in Ireland? Obviously I’d like to win a World event because of the stature and as an Irishman I badly want to win our National Championship, but I was wondering is there more pressure regarding this or the Irish Open? The field is obviously strong for this one but after weighing it up I decided my desire to win either of these would be very similar. It’s very high on my priorities to win a World event and it’s probably even higher on the list to win an event in Ireland. Let’s just say, then, that I would be delighted if I could tick off two goals on my wish list this Sunday evening!
There’s been a couple or so people opting not to take up their place in the field this week, but it is still very strong. Vijay Singh deciding not to play is a loss. He would, of course, have been a star attraction being the newly crowned World No.1. However, it’s great that the majority of the Ryder Cup players who were at Oakland Hills a fortnight ago will be here, including Tiger Woods, a massive draw-card wherever he tees it up.
Tiger won this tournament the last time it was staged at Mount Juliet in 2002 and it would be foolish not to rate him among the leading challengers this time around. He would be my strong favourite because it’s a course he’s very familiar with, a course he enjoys and has had some success on. Plus, he’ll be motivated.
People have asked me why he’s not playing as well as he has done in recent years and I tell them that form ebbs and flows. If you analyse any of the great players – say Jack Nicklaus or anybody - they all had stages when they were unbeatable, phases where they were just very competitive and then back to being unbeatable. I don’t worry for Tiger. He’s going to be back – he’s still the most talented golfer in the world. He may not be the best golfer in the world at this very moment, but he’s the most talented golfer. There’s no question about it, Tiger will be back on top eventually – it’s just a question of ‘when’ rather than whether he will.
Mount Juliet was designed by Jack Nicklaus – his first course in Ireland – and it’s superb. It’s a par-72, measuring over 7,200 yards with undulating fairways, many feature water hazards and finely kept, contoured greens. I was attached here for several years and I always enjoyed coming. You can come here at any time of the year and it’s in good condition. If you pitched up in the middle of winter, you’ll always find true greens. It’s always a joy to play the course and make use of the good facilities.
My form must be considered fairly good. There was the win in Germany earlier in the month, then the Ryder Cup and I wasn’t bad – if somewhat tired at last week’s Heritage tournament at Woburn. I hit the ball well but just couldn’t whole the putts. Hopefully, I’m still on an upward trend and I’m hoping my form is good for this event, I have no reason to expect that it won’t be…but then you can never be that sure in golf! We’ll find out when I tee off for the first round at 1.10 alongside Davis Love III and Sergio Garcia.
I finished in a share of sixth place at last week’s American Express World Golf Championship event with an 11-under total of 277 – seven behind the winner Ernie Els. Someone asked me immediately afterwards if I was satisfied with the week and I had to answer them, honestly, no I wasn’t. I shot in the 60s in the opening three days and while the conditions on the final day were tough, I would like to have gone lower than the 73 I did shot. I have played four weeks on the trot now and felt mentally tired out there.
Before the weekend…
On both the first and second day I shot 69 – but I was happier with the latter score. For the second round, conditions were much harder with the showers making it very difficult at times. They really had an effect on the temperature, too and the ball wasn’t flying as far. On the first tee, for instance, under a heavy shower my drive ended up probably 50 yards short of where I’d hit it on the first day, even though I’d hit it much better on the second. Playing into the green I found myself having to take a 6-iron whereas 24 hours earlier it had been a 9-iron.
Anyway, I was a little bit deflated about shooting three-under in the first round, but my three-under on Friday was a good, solid score.
Some putts stay out…
Ernie was leading on 11-under at the half-way point, but I might have been closer to him than I was if I’d holed a few more putts over those first couple of days. I holed one eight-footer in the first two days, nothing longer than that and you can't shoot low numbers unless you make a few putts. I actually felt I hit a lot of good putts in the second round up until maybe the last couple of holes. But it gets hard when you're not seeing putts go in the hole and you start getting tentative when reading the putts.
…And some putts go in
The thing is, you have to be patient when it comes to putting. When they start going in, they keep going in. You can see yourself doing no wrong. And so it proved in the third round for me. It all started at the 1st when I made a birdie putt from 15 foot. That got me off on the right footing and at the next I holed a 25 footer to save my par. As I said, when one goes in, they all seem to follow.
So it was, then, that I sank another from 15 foot at the 3rd, another from the same range at 8th and then a 14-footer at the 9th. And all were for birdies. When I birdied the 10th from three feet to go to six-under for the day I was on a real roll.
In the mix
I was unable to make any more birdies after the 10th on the back nine, but obviously it was a good day. I suppose, at six-under through 10, maybe I would have been happy to shoot a little lower for the round, but I could see myself doing no wrong and probably got a little bit aggressive at times coming home. Even so, I got it up-and-down out of a couple of bunkers, so that was good and I was very pleased with the score and to be somewhat in contention for the final round.
I had some brilliant support all week and it was really nice to give them plenty to cheer about in the third round. With it being a Saturday, there was a really good crowd out on the course and I had a good following right from the first tee. Thankfully, I started the right way and birdied three of the first five holes, and the people who came out to watch me stayed with me then. It gave some momentum to that crowd. If I started with pars they may have drifted off. As it was, the birdies added to a really good atmosphere out on the course and they was not just applause, but cheering from greens to tees.
It was pretty wild out there on the final day and I found it tough to focus. It was one of those days where I tried as hard as I could, but my mind just wasn't settled. Then, with the conditions the way they were, it was tough for me to play my best golf. .I made just one birdie all day, but took a couple of bogies. One of them came at the 17th – a par-5 – where I found water and that meant I didn’t finish in a share of fourth. But I got away with a numbers of things before that, including an outrageous up and down for a par at the 16th, so I'm not going to rue one mistake on that hole. I did hit a few good shots in the middle of the back nine, so I feel okay with my game. Hopefully, I can get some rest in before this week’s dunhill links championship, where I’ll be playing for the fifth week in a row.