Rory McIlroy shows signs of return to winning ways

Rory McIlroy. Picture: AP
Rory McIlroy. Picture: AP
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Amid all the nonsense that went on before and during last week’s Players Championship – Vijay’s amazing decision to sue the PGA Tour, Sergio’s increasingly open dislike of the world’s best golfer and Tiger’s apparent need for both road map and rulebook when dropping balls – one thing went almost unnoticed. Behind everyone’s back, Rory McIlroy slipped quietly into a tie for eighth place.

While it would be something of a stretch to say the now 24-year-old Ulsterman has produced anything like his best form this season, three top tens in his last four events do hint at definite progress. Certainly, he is much improved from the lost wee soul who left after only two days in Abu Dhabi, was dispatched in the first round of the World Match Play then walked out of the Honda Classic.

While his lack of golf and form so far is largely self-inflicted – the Players was only his ninth competitive appearance of 2013 – it is clearly too early to write off the year as a complete loss.

One man who is optimistic about the immediate future is McIlroy’s swing coach, Michael Bannon.

“Rory’s mistake earlier this year was starting the backswing with his hands,” contends the former Bangor club professional. “That moved his arms away from his body and put the club outside the ideal plane. He then looped it under again on the downswing. That was where all those block-fades came from.

“Add in the fact that he didn’t play enough early in the year and he struggled a bit. He’s in a much better place now though. He’s starting the club back on a much better line that has him swinging freely through impact.”

The numbers – some of them at least – do tend to back up Bannon’s assertion. Currently 22nd on the PGA Tour money list with $1,339,560 in earnings, McIlroy sits seventh in “driving distance” and fifth in the “greens in regulation” categories. On the other hand, he is a lowly 117th in “driving accuracy” and only 90th in “proximity to the hole” with his approach shots. On average, the former European Amateur champion leaves his ball an inch over 12 yards from the cup. Not great for one so gifted.

Which brings us to the all-important putting. McIlroy has always been known as streaky more than consistently good on the greens but his putting coach – former USPGA champion Dave Stockton – sees only good things ahead.

“Right now, there is no reason to say anything to Rory about technique,” says the Californian. “His tendency is to get a little short in the backswing. Then he ‘pops’ it and comes up short. That happens more when he feels like the greens are slower. So he feels like he has to hit the ball harder.

“All he has to do is let the club go back fully. Then he can go through smoother and roll the ball better. That gives him the proper level of acceleration through impact without him having to consciously think about it. He has great feel for the tempo and pace of putts. But he’s still the only person I’ve ever tried to slow down walking to the ball. I don’t want him to rush. Right from the start, in fact, there were very few areas of putting where I could help him.”

Stockton, in fact, is more than impressed by McIlroy’s attitude to the part of the game that is as much mental as it is physical.

“When anyone hires me, I’m always going to delve more into the mental side of putting than the physical,” he continues. “Rory never gets in his own way though. I’ve never seen him like that. He did get down on himself a little last year. But all I told him was that I didn’t want to turn on the television and be able to tell whether he made birdie or bogey on the last hole.

“I want him to show more emotion than Tiger. I want him to enjoy himself. But I don’t want ups and downs. I played all those years against Nicklaus and I never knew whether Jack was happy or sad. He didn’t let his golf affect his personality. That’s what I cautioned Rory about more than anything.”

Speaking of which, while his inherent niceness remains intact, there are signs that the attention his exceptional game brings has caused McIlroy to “withdraw” a little in his dealings with media.

Whether that is a long-term trend or merely a consequence of his imminent split from his management group, Horizon Sports, remains to be seen. Whatever, at least for the moment, his normally friendly smile has been replaced by a brief nod.

Still, far more important is the slow-but-sure up-tick in the form shown by Gerry and Rosie’s only son. Yes, his overall play continues to contain the sloppiness that has plagued him all season, but, again, that has, to varying degrees, always been a part of his golfing make-up.

“I laugh when I read some of the things written about him and hear some of the things said,” says McIlroy’s close friend, the former Irish Open champion Shane Lowry. “He’s never been the sort of player who gets himself into contention every week. He’s more like Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods in that respect.

“I have no doubt he can go to Merion next month and do well in the US Open. I know what to look for and I don’t see a guy in a slump. He can still hit shots no one else in the field can hit. So it’s coming. And it’s never far away with him.”

That is also true. In fact, since he foolishly decided to pack up and leave the Honda Classic early in March, McIlroy has finished only one event over par, the Masters at Augusta. And, despite all the misgivings about his swing, his putting and his overall form, he is currently ranked third in the “all-round” category on the PGA Tour. Whatever that actually means, it does sound at least promising.

One area where there is definite room for improvement, however, is in his play on Saturdays. Strangely, while his scoring for the other three rounds is perfectly acceptable – 70.52 on Thursdays, 70.15 on Fridays and a startling 68.63 on Sundays – McIlroy is averaging as many as 73 in the third round of every event. As a result, he has been leaving himself with too much to do one day later. With the pressure largely off, he is performing exceptionally.

Speaking last Sunday after his closing 70 at the Players – he made four birdies in his last six holes – McIlroy had this to say: “Tee to green I thought I played really, really well. I just didn’t hole the putts. But I’ve got a week off now so I’ll go and work on it and see if I can improve on the greens. If I can do that and keep hitting the ball the same way, I think it’s very, very close.”

All the important signs would seem to indicate that he is correct in both his assessment and his optimism. Watch out Tiger, here he comes.