Rory McIlroy’s astonishing two-iron on Sunday was not just exhilarating because he actually won the Northern Irishman at the Scottish Open and his first title in six months, but because of what it could mean for his chances of a first major title in nine years here at the 151st open.
Given that the superlative downwind strike of 201 yards meant McIlroy was in top form when he returned to Royal Liverpool, this Wirral link is where he lifted his only and so far only Claret Jug in 2014 Yet, just as pertinently, he showed that he has the special weapon in his holster that could give him the edge over the best in the world.
In short, he has the two-iron and armed with the legendary club which, when the game originated, was called “The Cleek” – a narrow metal-headed club with a slight loft – the world number 3 is in a clique special this week.
It’s fair to say that The Cleek holds a special place in recent Hoylake Open folklore. In 2006, the course’s first major in 39 years, Tiger Woods only used the driver once a week, instead conjuring up his two-iron dart from the tee over and over again.
Woods developed a game plan and his unique blend of exuberant skill and chess-like patience allowed him to shoot the greens from further than his driver-wielding colleagues, but still from the fairway, an asset he believed in. that it would pay dividends. Performance is still ranked by followers of the discipline as the benchmark of perfect golf mastery.
“There weren’t many in that Open field, even back then, who also had the two-iron in the bag,” says Ian Poulter. “The ball lead made it easier to hit the five woods and the hybrids, because of the lack of spin. And there were probably even fewer when the Open returned to it eight years later.
McIlroy was one of them. Except the conditions were different – much lusher and trackless – allowing one of the driver’s greatest exponents of all time to fly off the tees. Still, he put it on the line. “Oh yeah, that was in there,” he told Telegraph Sport, looking back on his two-stroke triumph. “My last iron shot in this tournament was actually with a two iron.”
Of course, Sunday’s two-iron was also the final iron shot at the Renaissance Club and he unsurprisingly expressed satisfaction with his decision to introduce the Taylor P760. “I put it on for those two weeks,” he said. “So that will be in my bag again for Hoylake.”
When asked if he thought it was a risk “because not many other players use it these days”, he replied: “Yeah, but they’re not as good as me.”
McIlroy said this with a smile and was clearly joking. But while a lot of the real stuff is said in jest, her former coach, Pete Cowen, thinks that quip borders on the thrilling factual. “The one-iron and the two-iron have already separated the men from the boys and in some senses that probably follows more than ever,” he said.
It’s complex because McIlroy throws the ball higher (and farther) than most pros, giving him an advantage when playing in the United States, where the elements suit an aerial style. But next to the UK ribs, hitting the ball lower and with less spin protects the trajectory through gusts.
With that in mind, McIlroy returned to the two-degree 17-degree iron that was made for him by TaylorMade a few years ago. It was in the garage of his Florida mansion gathering dust. In a fortnight, he could muster not just that first Scottish Open title, but that elusive fifth Major as well. McIlroy’s superior talent has always been indisputable, but with equipment technology creating this false era of parity, it could finally be the ability to set his abilities apart again.
“There’s that old Lee Trevino joke [the Texan who said that during a thunderstorm anybody on a golf course should simply hold his one iron up to the sky – “because even God can’t hit a one iron] and Lee knew what he was talking about,” Cowen said.
Cowen pointed out that the two-iron from this era is essentially the one-iron from the turn of the last century. Distance-obsessed hackers, OEMs have modified lofts. So an average handicapper thought he was hitting his seven iron in his new set much longer than his old set, when in reality it was because the loft was three degrees different, from 33 degrees to 30 degrees. The iron was up to 19 degrees.
The cynical marketing ploy was meant to hit back, as the lower the loft the harder it is to hit, but the invention of the hybrid means the overwhelming majority of complete sets sold in golf shops today go from four irons to pitch wedges, with the proliferation of lob wedges opening up an entirely new sales division.
“The modern ball is so much more forgiving and the woods and hybrids so much easier to hit,” Cowen confirmed. “We don’t see much of the ‘motor’ irons anymore. And while it’s about getting more people to play and making it easier to get around, that’s a shame because it’s an art and qualifies the golfer as a great ball hitter.
Cowen was a pro in the 70s to mid 80s and almost gets hazy with the memories. “Sandy Lyle was the best with those clubs at the time,” he said. “They called the iron the ‘cake knife’, but Sandy’s was more like a table knife, flat and with such a small face. You’d see him dwarfed by the ball, with no sweet spot, and wonder how he does it every time? It’s consistency that worries modern players.
“But not Rory, or Brooks [Koepka, the five-time major winner who Cowen coaches]. Brooks has a club with the loft of a two-iron, or old one-iron, and like Rory, he’s convinced he can do what others can’t with it. If it’s windy here – and it’s supposed to – then that could be a defining advantage – as Rory showed on Sunday.
Tommy Fleetwood is another ball-striker who is said to handle the flat face with panache. Yet last week he was unsure about using it and explained why. “There’s no doubt that the modern ball does a lot less than before in terms of spin, so even if you send a five wood into the sky in the wind, it’s not going to fly like confetti,” said- he declared. . “And if you’re going to take the two-iron just for two weeks, you have to have a lot of confidence.
“There’s the risk factor because no matter how hard you can hit him in training, can you rely on him in competition? You definitely don’t see the pros playing with setups as much as you used to and that must be due to the equipment and where the game went.
“But yeah, it’s nostalgic to think of people who could hit a two-iron and one-iron. I remember seeing Tiger win in 2006 and then running to the range to hit a two-iron for about the following week.
Golfers who avoided fairway woods were once a revered species. “I guess it was a status symbol – ‘hey did you see him, he can hit a flat iron!'” Fleetwood said. “So you put an iron on but whether you could hit it or not was another matter. I played with Sandiway pro Gareth Jones [Golf Course in Cheshire] a few years ago, and I looked at his clubs and he had a driver, then an iron down to his wedges and his putter. I told him “this is my favorite club setup”. It was old school and I loved it. But maybe those days are over now.
Still, McIlroy’s genius strike could mean “The Cake Knife” still serves its purpose and perhaps it shouldn’t be consigned to the bottom drawer to become rusty and forgotten. And with the governing bodies threatening to roll the ball back to solve the game’s long distance problem, Hoylake may deliver another blow to the flushers of yesteryear.
“There’s nothing more exciting than hitting a two iron like that on the 18 to win,” McIlroy said. “Pure.”
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