McKibbin ready to take the next step as maiden title defence looms

Mark McGowan

Tom McKibbin (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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Coming from Holywood, comparisons were always going to be drawn between Rory McIlroy and Tom McKibbin. It’s only natural. Natural, but not entirely fair on the younger man when you’re being compared to the greatest golfer this island has ever produced and one of the all-time European greats.

Both turned pro at a young age, but while McIlroy’s Walker Cup and Open Championship silver medal garnered enough European Tour invites and his play was of a high enough quality in those to earn his tour card straight away, McKibbin had to play his way through the Challenge Tour.

By the time McIlroy was the age McKibbin is now, he’d already played in nine majors, had posted top-10s (including three T3s) in four of them, and had wins on both the PGA and European Tours.

But the tide is turning for McKibbin, who’s set to make his major championship debut at the US Open at Pinehurst after successfully navigating Q-School at Walton Heath – he came desperately close in 2023, coming up one shot shy and despite being first alternate, had to watch from the sidelines – and he’s set to defend a championship for the first time ever as the DP World Tour rolls back into Green Eagle Golf Club in Germany for the Porsche European Open.

Despite missing just one cut, posting three top-10s and not finishing outside the top-25 in any of his other DP World Tour starts in 2024 – his defence of the European Open will be his 10th start of 2024 – he’s only managed to rise 18 spots in the OWGR, which is a poor indictment of the rankings’ structure. He’s also only ranked 25th in the Race to Dubai, which, given how consistently he’s performed, again shows how the rankings are skewed to favour the players who are in the majors.

Cracking into the top-10 – or at least the top 10 of those not otherwise exempt onto the PGA Tour – has to still be the number one goal, and retuning to the site of his first professional victory with his maiden major start to come provides opportunities to make a substantial leap up the rankings.

Fond memories will be plentiful this week, and at a course that asks arguably the most demanding questions that players will face all year on the DP World Tour, one of the best ball strikers on the circuit will be highly fancied to once again put in a strong showing. But defending a title is never an easy thing to do, particularly for a young player who prefers to shun the spotlight as opposed to seeking it.

But not yet qualified for the Open Championship and needing a couple of big weeks to avoid the necessity for another tilt at Final Qualifying for a major championship, this week presents an opportunity to climb the rankings and to test himself on a tough layout ahead of his trip to what has traditionally been the toughest test in golf.

We know his game is in good shape and that he’s got the bottle when the chips are down. His victory here last year, his incredible consistency in 2024, and him birdieing three of the final five holes – when he knew he needed to play the holes in -3 – to book his ticket to Pinehurst are evidence of that.

So what better place to lay down another marker?

He’s not yet at the level that Rory McIlroy was when he was his age, but few will ever be. But that’s no slight. He’s still the best young prospect in Irish golf by a long shot. And I’m willing to bet that he’s ready to take the next step.

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