Challengers gear up for The Open test
Rory McIlroy proved that even the world's elite can struggle to cope with the challenges that Royal Troon faces.
Published: Wed 13 Jul 2016, 12:00 AM
Last updated: Thu 14 Jul 2016, 10:19 AM
Rory McIlroy found out the hard way on Tuesday as he took six shots to get out of one of the five bunkers surrounding the most wicked 123-yard par 3 hole in the world and then he made a nine on the par 3 during The Open practice round at Royal Troon on Tuesday.
The former World No. 1 missed last year's Championship after injuring his ankle playing football and he freely admits he found it difficult watching the rest of the world's best players battling it out to claim the Claret Jug he had won at Hoylake the year before.
"I'm excited to be back," he said. In part due to that enforced absence it is now some 23 months since McIlroy won the last of his four Major titles at the 2014 PGA Championship but that is not something he is unduly concerned about. Indeed, he believes he might well be close to returning to the sort of form that helped him to claim consecutive Majors in the summer of 2014. "I'm happy with my game," he said.
Jordan Spieth, no.3 in the Official World Golf Rankings, is one of the favourites to win The 145th Open.
This time last year, Spieth was the hottest player on the planet. He arrived at The Open at St Andrews in the hunt for a third successive Major Championship - after victories at the Masters and the US Open - and gave it his best shot, finishing tied fourth. What it also gave him was a determination to claim the Claret Jug for himself.
"I crave to have that trophy in my possession," Spieth said today. "And to reach the third leg of the Grand Slam this week would be a fantastic achievement and a life-long goal of mine."
Meanwhile, perks come with being a major winner, as Danny Willett is discovering.
Take last week, for example. The Masters champion started it in the Royal Box at Wimbledon watching Andy Murray and Roger Federer play, and ended it as a special guest at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. On Monday of British Open week, Willett was shooting penalty kicks at a soccer stadium near Royal Troon. Two days before the British Open, Willett said he has had a "brutally honest conversation" with himself as he looks to rediscover his form.
"You got to go back to basics and realize what got you there in the first place," Willett said. "Are you working out enough? Have you been putting enough time in? Have you been dedicating yourself properly? We've had a couple moments in the last month or so where we're trying to get back on track now, getting back up and working as hard and for longer hours than what we have done in previous months, previous years."
Not that he regrets getting out of the golf bubble from time to time, as he did Monday when he attended a promotional event that involved taking penalties and hitting balls from the stands at Ibrox - the home of Scottish soccer club Rangers.
Willett particularly enjoys mixing with other sports stars, finding out what makes them tick and how they handle competing at the top of their profession.
"Being in that environment, I think it puts a different spin on our sport and what we do and how hard we work," Willett said. "We get caught up in our own little bubbles at time. As golfers we travel the world and play week to week, traveling together, and very rarely do you get to see other people around in their working environment."
A former top-ranked amateur, Willett was always destined for the top in golf and he had his first real taste of going close at a major at the British Open last year at St. Andrews. Willett was second after two rounds after shooting 66 and 69 and then played the final round with Zach Johnson, who went on to lift the claret jug after a playoff.
"It was good to be able to see that first-hand and see how he handled the pressure," Willett said. "Just seeing how it unfolded and how he played was good for me and a learning experience."
Willett took that experience to Augusta this year, holding himself together after Jordan Spieth hit two balls into the water at No. 12 to become an unlikely winner of the Masters. Now he finds himself at the center of attention wherever he goes and the crowds are sure to be following him at Troon.
The 28-year-old Englishman said he spent "two or three" days in bed last week because of illness, but will be 100 per cent by the first round Thursday.
"Being British," Willett said, "this is one you want to get your hands on."