Champion set to grapple with major challenge

 

US OPEN RORY McILROYThree recent missed cuts may represent a wake-up call for Rory McIlroy but no one should doubt his ability to bounce back, writes PHILIP REID

IN THE 12 months since his evolution into a Major champion, the camera shutters have stockpiled evidence of Rory McIlroy’s life in a goldfish bowl. He can’t move, it seems, without a lens zooming in to capture him rubbing shoulders with other sporting royalty at some occasion – invariably a sporting one – or other. Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon. Click! A Klitschko fight. Click! Emerging from the crowd in woolly jumper to join girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki on court at Madison Square Gardens. Clickety-click!!

Oh, and then there’s the golf. McIlroy’s attempts to marry a life away from the golf course with his day job had, until recently, seemed beyond reproach as he followed up his breakthrough Major win in the US Open at Congressional Country Club last June by routinely contending in tournaments seemingly week-in and week-out and picking up regular tour wins in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Florida en route to attaining the world number-one status for a time.

In recent weeks, though, a reality check has forced McIlroy to refocus the mind. A sequence of three missed cuts – starting with The Players in Sawgrass, then followed by the BMW PGA at Wentworth and carried on at The Memorial tournament in Dublin, Ohio, last week – is, quite simply, not what we have come to expect of McIlroy.

It hasn’t just been the missed cuts. The jaunt hasn’t been, well, as jaunty. The smile hasn’t been as wide. And to toss a club a la a Highlander tossing a caber, as he did with a six-iron at Wentworth, most definitely isn’t what’s expected of the clean-cut golfing hero. What that expression of frustration showed, however, was that most human emotion of all that bubbles beneath the surface.

McIlroy’s hurt with his game and himself was evident for all of us to see at Wentworth, as he acknowledged taking his “eye off the ball a little bit”. His inclination to restore the stellar form that followed his record-breaking US Open win at Congressional was to adopt the old Ben Hogan mantra of working harder than ever to get back to the level he set himself in late-2011 and continued into early-2012 up until his arrival in Augusta where a third round pairing with Sergio Garcia seemed to sap him of energy.

A couple of ironies won’t be lost on McIlroy as he heads into the defence of his US Open title at The Olympic Club in San Francisco next week. He set out at the start of the season with a clearly-defined schedule. “I don’t want to be burned out by the time I’m 30,” he explained, of the reasoning behind reducing the number of events he played in.

Also, he remarked: “The most important time for me in the golf season is from the start of April until the end of August.” On both fronts, he has had a wake-up call: McIlroy was forced to add the St Jude Classic onto his schedule, after his run of missed cuts; and, since April, his form has deserted him.

Of course, McIlroy has plenty of time to right both matters. And his defence of the US Open couldn’t offer a better starting point for what promises to be a long summer focused on the Majors – with the British Open at Royal Lytham and the US PGA at Kiawah Island – and up to the Ryder Cup at Medinah, outside Chicago, in September.

McIlroy – one of EA Sports’ poster boys, alongside a certain Tiger Woods – had played the Olympic Club on his PlayStation but finally got to play it for real last weekend, having headed to San Francisco for a reconnaissance visit after missing the cut in the Memorial. Interestingly, McIlroy had both of his coaches, long-time swing coach Michael Bannon and short-game guru Dave Stockton, with him on the West Coast as he sought to rectify whatever glitches had crept into his game.

McIlroy’s recent play has been a far cry from the majestic heights he reached in last year’s event at Congressional, when he broke or tied 12 US Open records on his way to an eight-stroke winning margin over Jason Day. “Winning a Major championship is a life-changing experience,” observed McIlroy recently. “It puts you among an elite group of players that can call themselves Major champions. If anything, it gives me more confidence in myself knowing that I can win on the biggest stage in golf.”

Since triumphing so spectacularly at Congressional, McIlroy’s appearances in the Majors have been more than a little disappointing. In the British Open at Sandwich, he laboured to a tied-25th finish and picked up flak over his comments about playing in the wind.

In the US PGA at Atlanta, he sustained a wrist injury when attempting to play a risky shot off a tree root early in his first round and, although surviving the cut, finished towards the tailend of the field.

In the Masters at Augusta in April, having finished in the top-three in 12 of his previous 13 tournaments in a purple patch that stretched back to last September’s European Masters, he contended going into the weekend only to slip to a share of 40th alongside Tiger Woods.

For a player who uses the Majors as the ultimate yardstick, the form in those showpiece events – since last year’s US Open – has fallen below the level he would expect.

After finishing his final round at Augusta, McIlroy remarked: “I actually felt like I played okay, just a couple of yards off here and there . . . missed the slopes and missed the greens in the wrong spots and if you do that here it’s very difficult. I felt like coming into the weekend I had a chance and sort of blew up the first front nine (on Saturday).”

As if to underpin how a player’s game can change, with highs and lows, McIlroy pointedly added: “If you take last year to now, a lot’s happened.” The remark was a reference to his collapse in the final round of the 2011 US Masters to going on a run that brought him a US Open title in his next outing and an autumn-into-winter-into-spring run that saw him assume the world’s number one mantle.

In other words, nobody should doubt McIlroy’s ability to bounce back from adversity. It’s what he did last year, recovering from his Masters meltdown to dominate at Congressional where he hit 62 of 72 greens-in-regulation. This time, it’s not just one round but a series of short weeks taking in Sawgrass, Wentworth and Ohio.

In his day, Sam Snead once observed that the only things he feared on a golf course were downhill putts, lightning and Ben Hogan.

For much of the time since his win at Congressional, McIlroy instilled that kind of Hogan-style fear into competitors too.

He has lost it in recent weeks, and needs to get it back if he is to become the first back-to-back US Open champion since Curtis Strange in 1989. He needs to rediscover control of the golf ball.