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Inside the Ropes: McIlroy's game is coming together

The SportsXchange

Good things have finally started happening again for Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy, who lost his No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings to Tiger Woods this week, got off to a miserable start this season after his lucrative and ballyhooed switch from Titleist to Nike equipment.

However, he can regain the top position with a high finish this week in the Shell Houston Open, and he seems to have regained his confidence.

"There's been a significant improvement," McIlroy said after posting his first two rounds in the 60s this season in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, including a 7-under-par 65 in the final round that left him in a tie for eighth.

"I found something; I'm a lot more comfortable with what I'm trying to do. A lot more playability with my swing. Just goes to show ... it's not as far away as you think. That's been one of my problems. I always think when I'm playing bad that it's further away than it is."

McIlroy started the season with a missed cut in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, only days after Nike introduced him in a Hollywood-like media event.

Then he was eliminated in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship by his friend, Shane Lowry of Ireland, but the worst came in the second round of the Honda Classic.

The 23-year-old was 7-over-par through eight holes when he hit his ball into the water on the ninth hole and walked off the course. Even though he later claimed he was bothered by a painful wisdom tooth, he was roasted in the media on both side of the Atlantic.

McIlroy apologized in a press conference when he got to Doral a few days later and then seemed to get his game going in the right direction in the last three rounds on the TPC Blue Monster.

"I had a really good range session (after the first round) and felt like I hit the ball better," said McIlroy, who is making Houston his final tune-up before the Masters in two weeks. "I saw a lot of positives.

"You go through these periods in golf where you have a tough time and things don't click. It would be great if it wasn't like that and would make the game a lot easier, but I saw a lot of good signs which shows that I'm going in the right direction."

During his two weeks off, Rory continued to work on his game, played in the Els for Autism Pro-Am and spent time in South Florida with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who was coming off a runner-up finish in the BNP Paribas Open, losing to Maria Sharapova in the final.

McIlroy also visited PGA of America headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where he picked up the 2012 PGA Player of the Year Award and the Vardon Trophy, for low scoring average on the circuit.

"It was a huge honor to win both of these awards in 2012 and it really showed what a great year I had," McIlroy said. "Hopefully I'm able to replicate that a few more times in my career."

Despite his slow start this season, he still has plenty of time to equal or surpass it by winning multiple majors, especially if he can pull things together before he gets to Augusta National, which seems to be a perfect fit for his game.

Overlooked during his struggles is the fact that in the last major, he blitzed the field to capture the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island by eight strokes last August.

"Rory played all right ... ," Tiger Woods said after they played together in round two at Doral, where McIlroy posted a 69. "He made some nice swings and holed a few putts. Certainly he's trying to work his way through making some changes in his swing.

"It's not easy, especially at this level on difficult courses; it's tough. But he's put in some time this past weekend, this past week, and you know, from what I can see, it certainly is improving.

"He still has got a lot of time till Augusta, so he's on the right track."

There was speculation that McIlroy might add, and perhaps needed another tournament before Augusta, but he considered it and decided to stick with his original schedule.

The way he described his plans, it was something of a two-week working vacation. He even passed up a chance to partner with Michael Jordan in the Seminole Golf Club member-guest near his home in Palm Beach Gardens.

"I'm looking forward to just getting back and working on my game a bit more, I guess," McIlroy said before leaving Doral. "I'm not secluding myself, but sort of get away from this whole thing a bit and work on my game a bit more in peace and quiet, and get out to Houston and hopefully my game is in even better shape going into there."

After the Honda, there was no direction to go but up.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: Shell Houston Open on the Tournament Course Redstone Golf Club in Humble, Texas, Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 4-7 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, noon-2 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel and 3-6 p.m. EDT on NBC.

LAST YEAR: Hunter Mahan, who also captured the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, became the first two-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2012 when he posted a one-stroke victory over Carl Petterson of Sweden. Mahan, who became the highest-ranked American in the World Golf Rankings at No. 4, began the final round two strokes behind Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who lost his lead with two double bogeys on the front nine and finished third by closing with a 3-over-par 75. Mahan closed with a 71, carding eight consecutive pars before sinking a five-foot birdie putt to take the lead at No. 9 and held off Petterson, who also shot 71, on the back nine. The Swede missed an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole that would have forced a playoff.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: Greater Gwinnett Championship at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga., April 19-21.

TV: Friday, 12:30-2:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Inaugural event.

LPGA TOUR: Kraft Nabisco Championship on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Rancho Mirage in Mission Hills, Calif., April 4-7.

TV: Thursday and Friday, noon-3 p.m. EDT and 6-9 p.m. EDT; Saturday and Sunday, 5-9 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Sun Young Yoo of South Korea sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to defeat I.K. Kim, also of South Korea, minutes a after Kim inexplicably gave the title away. The 23-year-old Kim, who had taken the lead by holing a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th and a 20-footer for birdie on the 17th, had a one-foot putt to win the tournament on No. 18. Incredibly, she missed, her ball circling the cup before lipping out. Yoo, who claimed her second LPGA Tour victory and first major title, and Kim both finished with 3-under-par 69s. Yani Tseng of Thailand shot 73 and squandered a 54-hole lead in the first LPGA Tour major of the season for the second consecutive season, winding up third.
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