McIlroy hoping to copy Watson’s return to winners’ circle
World number 10 delighted to be heading back to familiar Bermuda greens in Florida
Bubba Watson: back up to 44th place in the world and looking forward to the Masters at Augusta where he has won twice. Photograph: Dylan Buell/Getty Images
For some, like Graeme McDowell, it’s about picking up the pieces; for others, like Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, it is about finding the missing piece of the jigsaw at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens where, at least, there will be some home comforts in their respective quests to make an impact in the $6 million tournament.
In McIlroy’s search for an elusive win, the stretch of almost 17 months since his last victory (Tour Championship 2016) now representing the longest winless streak since he turned professional, there is no sense of desperation.
Ironically, just as Bubba Watson had intimated before his own return to the winner’s circle with victory in the Genesis Open, McIlroy too has referred to trending in the right direction.
McIlroy’s third straight week on the road – a missed cut in Pebble Beach followed by a tied-20th finish in Los Angeles – will at least see the world number 10 sleep in his own bed in Florida but it is the return to Bermuda greens, and their familiarity, that he hopes will provide the real comfort zone.
In a bid to solve any putting issues, McIlroy had visited the TaylorMade facilities in Carlsbad and used a new putter in the first round at Riviera only to revert to his old one for the remaining three rounds.
“It didn’t quite work for me. It was great with numbers and stuff, being in a putting lab, but once you get out on a golf course it’s a little bit different. Going back to the putter that I’ve been using for the last few months helped with eye line and set-up. It felt good,” said McIlroy, adding: “I think getting back to Bermuda [grass] is going to be a little bit easier . . . the surfaces are a little bit truer.”
McIlroy, of course, is very familiar with the PGA National course – he won the Honda Classic in 2012 and was a runner-up in 2014, although has missed the cut in his last two appearances (in 2015 and 2016) – and believes there is no comparison with the player he is now and the one who won there six years ago when he became world number one.
“I remember losing in the final of the (WGC) Match Play the week before. That was my first chance to get to number one in the world and I knew I needed to win that week, so that was all I was focused on really. I had one target in mind and that was it.
“I remember Tiger (Woods) making a move down the stretch and I made a couple of key up-and-downs coming in. It feels like a lifetime ago, but good memories . . . I’m more experienced as a golfer, as a person. Hopefully a little bit wiser, just a little more settled. I felt like I was so consumed in that when I was 21 or 22 that I didn’t have a better perspective on every else in the world, and now I feel like I’m a bit more balanced.”
This three-week stretch of tournament play will conclude for McIlroy one way or another at the Honda, as he has decided not to travel to next week’s WGC Mexico City championship and to take a week off instead.
However, Shane Lowry – into his fifth tournament in five weeks – plays in the Honda aware that he needs a win or a solo second place finish if he is to gatecrash his way into the limited field in Mexico. The second and final cut-off for determining the WGC field comes next Monday (February 26th), with those inside the top-50 in the world not previously exempt earning a spot.
McDowell – who had a disappointing finish to the Genesis Open, only a shot behind the pace early on in his final round before falling away to a 77 that saw him plummet to tied-26th – and Pádraig Harrington, a winner in 2015, are the other Irish players in the field at the Honda. Séamus Power is third alternate.
Watson’s win in the Genesis Open moved the American back to 40th in the latest world rankings, up from 117th last week, and reinvigorated him with the Masters – where he has won twice – looming.
“Did I think I was going to win? No, but the trend was going into the right direction. My confidence levels getting up, my ball-striking is getting where I want it to be, my iron play, getting my distance back . . . so, I’m looking forward to the Masters. It’s like my joke: Fred Couples, everytime Fred Couples shows up, you see his name on the leaderboard at the Masters. I don’t care how old he is, doesn’t matter.
“He’s a kid in the candy store and he loves the game of golf when he gets to the Masters. It’s the Masters. So I’m always looking forward to it. Obviously I was looking forward to it because the trend was going in that direction. I’m not saying I’m going to have a chance to win it, but I’m in the field so I have a chance,” said Watson.