There’s a plaque on the par-five 16th fairway on the Palmer Course at the K Club commemorating Rory McIlroy’s 3-wood which landed on the middle of the green during the 2016 staging of the Irish Open. Trailing by one at the time, that shot set up a birdie and was undoubtedly the turning point in a round where it appeared that the tournament host may buckle under the weight of expectation of the home crowd.
I was fortunate to play the course shortly after the plaque had been installed and of course, walking up 16, I dropped a ball alongside and pulled my 3-wood. On a calm and temperate early-Autumn afternoon, I made as sweet a connection as possible and watched my ball fly laser-straight toward the pin. By being 273 yards away, reaching the green was never a realistic goal – I just wanted to clear the river Liffey. And I did. By all of a foot. By the time I’d reached my ball – a good 30-yards shy of where Rory’s had landed – my appreciation for the shot he’d taken on had been considerably raised.
The green had looked tiny from back in the fairway, and now that I was up beside it, it still looked small. The river, touch tight to the green on the right-hand side and snaking round to the front, looked huge. I’d dropped a ball under no pressure, in ideal conditions, and hit the shot of my life. McIlroy, knowing that any mistake would likely mean curtains, facing a headwind in cold and wet weather, still had me by almost 35-yards.
Earlier that day in 2016, Martin Kaymer had finished and was clubhouse-leader, and in his post-round interview gave viewers some insight into how tough and long the course was playing. I’m paraphrasing here from memory, but the two-time major-winner and former world number-one was unequivocal about the 16th. Nobody is getting there in two, he said. Well, Rory did. And though he still had work to do to win the tournament, that 3-wood was undoubtedly the most-important and best shot of the entire week.
I thought about that shot a lot on Sunday just past, not least because Sky Sport’s on-course commentator Wayne Riley referenced it, calling it one of the greatest 3-woods he’s ever seen, and as a two-time European Tour winner himself whose job it is now to watch the crème de la crème, it’s safe to say that he’s seen plenty. Yes, Rory’s 3-wood to the final hole of the Dubai Desert Classic may have been the polar opposite to that at The K Club, but I still found the reaction a little odd.
Like in 2016, McIlroy had options. He could lay up to his preferred yardage and hope to stick a wedge in close or he could go for it, trust in his ability and hope the risk pays off. And by this stage we all know what happened. But you can’t praise somebody for having the guts to go for broke on one occasion and roundly criticise them in a similar scenario based on result alone. Sports fans and commentators alike are prone to confirmation bias where the result validates or condemns the choice.
If you’re playing soccer and are bearing down on the last defender with Lionel Messi in support on one side and James McClean on the other, the correct choice is to pass it to the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. Sure, you could give it to McClean and he could score, but that doesn’t mean it was the right call.
McIlroy has that shot in his locker. We know because we’ve seen it on many, many occasions, including en route to his Irish Open success in ’16. I’d be more inclined to question why one of the best drivers of a golf ball the game has ever seen opted to hit 3-wood off the 18th tee. Viktor Hovland hit driver on an aggressive line and had a 5-iron into the green. Being longer than Hovland – in fact, it’ll surprise nobody that the Holywood native topped the driving distance charts last week – he’d have had 6-iron or less if he hits the fairway on the same line. Yes, he wasn’t driving it particularly well on Sunday and a big push off the tee could’ve found a different part of the pond he’d eventually dunk his ball in, but I’d still have fancied him to make par playing a long-iron for his third.
He was clearly furious with himself when his par putt lipped out, and this showed in his hasty exit without speaking to the press, and there’ll be more soul-searching done by a man who’s already done his fair share in the last few years.
But I suspect that it was the execution of the shot rather than the decision to play it that will haunt him most.
For more on the above, Listen to this week’s Irish Golfer Podcast