Rory McIlroy does an Internet ad for the European Tour where he’s matching a wise-cracking robot shot for shot on a driving range. The targets are washing machines, because as a young lad, McIlroy once honed his short game by hitting balls into his mum’s front-loader.
In the end, McIlroy confounds the contraption with a spectacular wedge shot into an elevated appliance, setting off a jackpot of exploding laundry. It’s an apt metaphor — McIlroy’s spot brilliance against the robot’s consistency. Now, as the 24-year-old World No. 2 heads into the British Open at Muirfield, he’s still searching for a little magic after putting himself through the ringer, caught in a spin cycle all season long.
Padraig Harrington recently called his fellow Irishman and major winner an erratic genius. In other words, he is more Phil than Tiger. But, as NBC’s Johnny Miller said in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he is also “a bit of a mess right now.
“He’s hit the grand slam of things you have to watch out for when you’re at the top,” Miller said.
To review, his season began with a controversial switch from Titleist to Nike equipment for a $100 million pay day and was immediately followed by a missed cut at Abu Dhabi, before a first-round loss at the WGC Accenture Match play and then his walking off the course midway through the second round at the Honda Classic, where he ultimately used a flimsy toothache excuse.
At the same time, there was a false rumor of a split with his tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, then a real split with his management team.
Overall, there have been four top 10 finishes balanced by three missed cuts (plus the withdrawal) in 12 worldwide starts. More importantly, there have been zero wins, with finishes of T-25 and T-41, in the first two majors of the year. Frustration got to him at the U.S. Open at Merion, where he intentionally bent his Nike 9-iron after a bad shot in the final round. Finally, while missing his latest cut at the Irish Open two weeks ago, he admitted feeling “a bit lost” while promising, as all struggling golfers do, that he’s “close.”
The theories abound, particularly in hand-wringing Europe. Christy O’Conner Jr., Irish golfing legend of the ’70s, even suggests it might be in his genes, that the Irish aren’t programmed for consistency.
“We’re an up and down people,” he says. “You don’t get a middle.”
“It’s the truth … typical Irish trait.,” agrees CBS analyst David Feherty, who also hails from the old sod. “He’s probably wracked with self doubt. The thing about this game, it doesn’t matter if you’re Tiger Woods or Joe Hacker. The same syndromes affect everybody. It’s really infuriating, and there’s no other game where there’s such a long time in between shots to think about how you might suck for the rest of your life and how many ways to suck, as well. Everybody who has ever played golf for any length of time is familiar with the way Rory feels right now.”
In the meantime, McIlroy has retreated to Monaco for some down time with Wozniacki after her flameout at Wimbledon, misery loving company.
“I still have a lot of golf to play,” McIlroy said at the Irish Open before he vamoosed from sight. “Two weeks is a lot of time to try and get something right, and hopefully I will be ready for Muirfield.”
None of this would have seemed possible after McIlroy shook off another slump to lap the field in a second major victory at last year’s PGA. The incredible display of golf at Kiawah secured him the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, since reclaimed by Woods, with the anticipation that he would be collecting majors in routine fashion. He would finish the year ridiculously hot with four wins in his last six events and a successful Ryder Cup.
Then came the Nike bombshell in January.
“Rory very simply messed with a winning formula,” insists Nick Faldo, a CBS commentator and six-time major champ noted for his unflinching consistency. “He went from rookie of the year to world No. 1 and has been through a lot and thought he could start again.
“As I said from Day 1 … this was a dangerous move. People said, ‘Oh, he’s so talented, he can adapt.’ Well, why should the world No. 1 be adapting to something new? As we discovered six months later, he’s busy still trying putters, still trying drivers. It’s not as easy.”
ESPN’s Paul Azinger, the man who outcaptained Faldo at the ’08 Ryder Cup, agrees with him on this point.
“I’ve changed clubs a lot and it was always difficult for me,” Azinger says. “I think he’s really struggling with this. It’s almost like he’s had a divorce with 14 clubs. He’s changed every club in his bag, and it is hard to do. Instead of playing, he’s working on drivers with Nike trying to figure out which one he wants to use. Now, that is a burden to a player.
“Ben Wright had a great comment about Rory the other day. he said, ‘I guess we are going to have to let him be young.’ I think that’s brilliant. He is young,” Azinger says. “But I think he just went through a major change when he changed all 14 clubs, and it’s affected him.”
That’s where Feherty differs.
“All this talk about equipment, it’s complete garbage,” he protests. “He could play with a set of hockey sticks and a banana. Really. Have we seen this boy play at all, when he plays well? He’s close to impossible to beat. He just appears to have two speeds. Full ahead and full stop.”
The club change doesn’t explain why he has struggled with his short game, or why his Saturday scoring average, when he has made the cut, is particularly rotten (73.5, 183rd on the PGA Tour). And that gets back to the inconsistency, which Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley defended after McIlroy’s Irish Open flop.
“If you look at him this time last year, the same questions were coming. Then all of a sudden after a few weeks off he wins the PGA,” McGinley says. “He is never going to be a Nick Faldo who is going to flatline. We just have to accept that and let him get on with it.”
Muirfield is McIlroy’s next chance to get on with it, although links golf, with its vagaries, hasn’t been his thing. Outside of a tie for third at St. Andrews in 2010, he hasn’t finished higher than 25th in any Open Championship. He famously said after Sandwich in 2011, “It’s not my sort of game.”
Of course, any flash of game would do right now. It’s been a long time between laundry days.
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UP AND DOWN
Rory McIlroy has had quite a topsy-turvy year. Here’s a look at his 2013 season, tournament by tournament:Jan. 20 – Abu Dhabi HSBC, CUTMar. 3 – Honda Classic, WithdrewMay 26 – BMW PGA, CUTJune 30 – Irish Open, CUT
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