The Irishman reflects on an excellent spell in which a series of strong showings and a fourth tour title have carried him to the very brink of a Ryder Cup place.
Magazine deadlines mean that although when you read this I will have played two Majors since my last column, I havent yet played the second one the USPGA. By now, you will know how I fared there, and an interesting topic to kick off with is just how difficult these Major golf courses are becoming. From my practice rounds at Oakland Hills, it looks as though the USPGA has gone down the same set-up route as the US Open. If they get these greens firm and fast, no-one would even sniff level par because its so difficult. The rough is super-thick theyve combed it up so the ball sits down the greens are extremely undulating, and its about 7,400 yards long!
Ive heard on the grapevine that Augusta is thinking of throttling back to try and inject some excitement back into the Masters. It would certainly be a good idea to get the course back to how it was a few years ago, for example when Phil Mickelson shot 31 on the back nine to win in 2004.
All the Majors seem to be super-tough now and that was certainly true of the Open at Birkdale, although the weather played a big part there. I was happy with my game for about three and a half rounds, but my short game let me down a little on the weekend. The course set-up was fantastic, but for it to blow that hard for 12 hours a day, four days in a row, was a little extreme even for someone brought up on a links. The wind was 25-30mph against on the range, so it was difficult to get any work done there, and by Thursday or Friday my swing was getting a little left-sided in my efforts to keep the ball down. You do lose your mechanics a little as the week wears on. But overall Birkdale was a positive experience, and to walk away slightly disappointed at my second-best finish in a Major tells me Im definitely improving.
My good summer run has brought the Ryder Cup sharply into focus, but as I write I cant afford to rest on my laurels as its not yet a done deal. Mathematically I can still be bumped off, although it would take a freakish run of results. I bumped into Nick Faldo at Birkdale. He congratulated me on the win at Loch Lomond with the words, Great playing; that should just about lock your place up and I hope to see you in September. But Im going to keep pinching myself until I see my name written on the team sheet! Its an exciting prospect and Im happy with my preparation and the way Ive gone about things this year.
Ive worked very hard on shutting the Ryder Cup out of my thoughts on the course. Ive got a good caddie in Ken Comboy, whos been down the Ryder Cup road a few times with other players. When the Tour got back onto mainland Europe, we sat down and talked about the fact that I was in the mix, the media attention was going to increase, and I was going to be asked all these Cup questions. We then worked hard to make sure that our focus was on each weeks event, rather than some future event. The Ryder Cup might have been the bigger picture, but the important thing was to stay focused, stay in the present and perform as well as possible each week. So I worked hard with Ken and my psychologist, Karl Morris, to make sure I didnt let anything distract me.
I managed that really well at Loch Lomond where I won my fourth Tour title. I hit a good second shot into the last with a two-shot lead, meaning I had sufficient cushion to savour the walk up 18 this time. Ive never really had that before I won my first by one in Sweden, so that went down to the last shot, and the other two in Korea and Italy in play-offs. When I hit that final approach, Ken said, Do you realise this has potentially got you in to the Ryder Cup team? At that point it hit home. Id focused hard on winning that tournament without getting ahead of myself, and it was nice to achieve that under the gun.
In the last Ryder Cup at the K Club I did some commentating for RTE, which I have referred to as a kind of self-punishment. That was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was still a time for self-reflection. I knew I was good enough to be on the team, and not being there as a player was a real moment for me. When the winning putt dropped all the guys were celebrating and although I was pumped up for them, I felt a little flat inside as I looked on. I was trying to imagine what that must have felt like, and said to myself, Im going to be on the team at Valhalla. There was a little bit of re-dedication there. I wanted to make sure I worked hard to give myself every chance.
I dont think Ive missed a Ryder Cup shot on TV in the last 15 years; I really have watched every shot. The media exposure has turned it into something massive, and its a tournament Ive always dreamed of playing in. All the team golf I grew up playing the Home Internationals, the European Championships I always dreamed of getting my first cap for Ireland, having the bag with the Ireland logo on it, and playing internationally. I love the buzz in the locker room and the team room the night before when the pairings come out. I love all that stuff. And Ive always been pretty good at matchplay; I think it suits my game. So assuming results dont conspire against me in a most unlikely way over the next couple of weeks, Im looking forward to finding out what Faldo might be like in the team room the night before. If I do make the team, these guys are all really good friends with whom Ive practised a lot, and I think the camaraderie among Team Europe will be fantastic.