American foes help McIlroy find top gear

The 2009 European Open had the weather, it had the crowds, it even had the white-knuckled finish which every self-respecting professional event should boast. But what it did not have was the star name on the leaderboard to put the oohs alongside the pars. Not until that boy Rory produced his Saturday best again to make up 23 places and take a share of third.

It has been a spookily similar story for McIlroy in Kent as it was last week at Wentworth. Then he arrived at the BMW PGA Championship out of sync, out of ideas, out of the imagination which defines this young talent. Yet by the third round the famous McIlroy mojo had resurfaced. A 65 put him in line to win the second and, of course, biggest title of his professional career.

It didn't happen then, but perhaps it will happen today. In many respects his four-under 68 matched the seven-under magnificence of seven days previous; certainly in the manner in which it Tardised him up the standings. He finished the second round, six off the pace and "a little tired" down in a tie for 25th. So this golf geek did what golf geeks do. "I had an early bath, went to bed and watched the American golf on telly," he said.

Sad? Well, it is true that not many 20-year-old's spend their Friday nights in this fashion, particularly not multi-millionaire ones with a fanbase akin to that of a boy band. But McIlroy was looking for some inspiration "from those around me in the world rankings" and clearly found it on those pictures from Texas. "When the wind is like this you have to start off well and I did that," he said. The sun was shining and it was hay time.

All sorts of grass flew into the air when McIlroy unleashed his driver on the par-five fifth. A 423-yarder left him with a flick in with a sand-wedge from 118 yards. "A regulation eagle,"as McIlroy put it. When the wind is at his back there seems little to stop this phenom, although he's not too shabby when it's in his face. By the time he reached the 14th tee he was five-under for his round and knowing the fun was about to start.

"I was happy to escape those last five holes in one-over," he said. "The run-in is so, so tough. The 16th is a par four playing like a par five, the 17th a three playing like a four and the 18th a four playing like a five. To not drop one on those three holes was very pleasing."

As it was the Ulsterman had to enact a sweet up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the 18th – "one of the toughest holes we play on Tour" – and from there he could retire to the clubhouse to watch the majority tumble down the scoreboard. Time for another bath, another early night and some more American golf maybe? "Nah, it's the final of Britain's Got Talent tonight," he said.

"I'm rooting for Diversity." McIlroy had just experienced plenty of that, what with the seven-iron he hit to the 16th green from 153 yards that came up a full 30 yards short. "That sort of thing's going to happen when the conditions are like this," he said. "If I'm going to win then I'm going to have to grind it out."

He will have to make up the three shots first on the Frenchman Christian Cévaër and the Indian Jeev Milkha Singh. The latter, in particular, was positively inspired on the brutal climax, playing the last six holes in a jaw-dropping four-under for a 71. As a three-time European Tour winner, Singh is a formidable adversity, although McIlroy may also look at the big-hitting Alvaro Quiros, also on six-under, and see an equal threat.

But then, whoever prevails will have to survive both the finish and the atmosphere. Thanks to a free-ticketing scheme the attendance here has been on the crowded side of sizeable and 30,000 are expected in today. How big a lead would McIlroy want with all those watching him on that fearsome last tee? "I don't think any lead would be enough to make me feel completely comfortable," he said.

Tip of the week

No 3: Putting: Drive for show, putt for dough

We've all heard the phrase a hundred times but how many of us spend most of our practice time putting? Before you rush out to perfect your stroke, here are a few reminders. Tilt forward and allow your arms to hang freely from your shoulders. Make sure your weight is in the balls of your feet and 65 per cent on your left side (for right-hand golfers). Position the ball halfway between the centre of your stance and the left heel. Many of you with 35-inch putters may find you need to cut the length of your putter to fit this new posture. Putting is about consistency: these tips will keep your body still with good balance, allow you to make your stroke with your shoulders and give consistent ball striking and feel.

Simon Iliffe, Head Professional, Purley Downs GC, Surrey