rORY McIlroy is finally giving the “The King” his audience. After upsetting Arnold Palmer over his non-appearance in the event in the past, the world No 1 makes his debut today in the great man’s Invitational event at Bay Hill in Orlando.
He does so with a damn sight more focus on him than anyone could ever imagined after the 25-year-old’s impressive victory in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at the beginning of February was quickly followed by a settlement that spared him a court appearance over a dispute with his former management company.
On the back of that double boost – sure, it cost him a sackful of money to close the chapter with Horizon Sports but the alternative wasn’t palatable in the slightest – we expected McIlroy to freewheel towards Augusta National, where in three weeks’ time he’ll be bidding to complete the career “Grand Slam”.
No-one saw a missed cut – his first in seven months – coming in the Honda Classic, while it was a mis-firing McIlroy who finished joint ninth the following week in the WGC-Cadillac Championship. “On the last green my caddie J P [Fitzgerald] said: ‘I think we left our game in the desert’. It’s still sort of back there,” groaned McIlroy after winding up at Doral.
Let’s keep things in perspective here. It’s way too early to be talking about McIlroy having hit the sort of mini-slump we witnessed two years ago, when the sun was going down on the season before he managed to land a victory in the Australian Open. There’s no doubt, however, that a confidence-boosting performance would be both welcome and timely this week. After all, it’s expected to be Rory’s final appearance before turning his attention to The Masters, though the Houston Open – an event that has typically been on his schedule – in a fortnight’s time is there if he feels another competitive outing is needed as opposed to range work.
“I’ll try to use this great event to tweak a few parts in my game and get myself comfortable for Augusta,” said the four-times major winner at the launch of EA SPORTS Rory McIlroy PGA Tour video game. “It was a bit hit and miss last time out, if I’m honest. But, after a few weeks in which my game has had a few weaknesses, I feel that I have put enough work in to address some lazy swings and needless mistakes. There will always be work to be done but my game’s very close to where it was late in 2014.”
Of most concern for McIlroy at Doral was that his trusty draw deserted him. “My inability to hit the ball right-to-left isn’t something that you want going into Augusta,” he admitted. It will be pleasing, therefore, that this week’s course has a series of holes where he’ll be able to try and get that shot back in the heat of a tournament.
It should also be remembered, of course, that McIlroy isn’t a machine despite the fact he gave that impression in the second half of last season as two majors – the Open Championship and US PGA Championship – were landed along with his first World Golf Championship. He’s surely allowed the odd blip like the Honda Classic and, with four solid rounds under his belt between now and Sunday, there’s no reason whatsoever why he can’t travel up Magnolia Lane with a bounce back in his step heading into a date with destiny.
“He’s had a few mini-slumps in his career that have made him a lot stronger,” noted Padraig Harrington, a three-times major winner and a PGA Tour champion again after winning the Honda Classic. “He’s had a couple of setbacks that have made him a lot better. There’s nothing better than having a loss of form and come back after it better and stronger. That’s great confidence to have.”
No matter what we see from McIlroy this week, Paul McGinley is surely right in saying that Tiger Woods – the eight-times Bay Hill winner is an absentee on this occasion – will be doing the Ulsterman a favour if he makes it back in time for Augusta.
“Look what happened at the US PGA last year,” said last year’s winning Ryder Cup captain at Gleneagles. “All the talk was, ‘Is Tiger going to play, is he not going to play?’ At the time Rory was favourite, but all the expectation, all the talk, all [the media] were focused on was Tiger. Rory didn’t sneak in the back door, but he was able to go about his business without the attention on him.”
Won last year by American Matt Every, the Bay Hill field boasts the top five players in the world – McIlroy is being joined by Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day – as well as two Scots, Russell Knox and Martin Laird.
For Laird, of course, it’s an event that provided him with a memory he’ll cherish for the rest of his life – a personal audience with Palmer after claiming the coveted title in 2012. “I literally had never seen him in the locker room or seen him on the range,” recalled the Glaswegian. “I’d never talked to him. Then I won his tournament. That’s what makes winning here so special.
“You come off and you’ve got a legend of the game standing there shaking your hand and congratulating you. That’s obviously something I’ll never forget. It’s always special to meet him and talk to him, but when it’s in that situation, it’s even better.”