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It was only 13 days ago that the Good Ship Rory appeared to have been righted when McIlroy won his 19th PGA Tour event at the Wells Fargo Championship, ending an 18-month drought that included missed cuts at the Players Championship and the Masters. Fast forward to the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, and his ship seems to be, if not listing, at least unmoored.
The world No. 7 shot a pedestrian 74 in Saturday’s third round after opening 75-72. His five-over par total left him tied 55th. As he signed his scorecard, Phil Mickelson, the tournament leader and a man 20 years his senior, was headed to the first tee. Whoever wins the title he has claimed twice, McIlroy will likely be home in Florida long before the champion is crowned Sunday evening.
It has been another disappointing week that promised more and ensures his winless run in the majors will stretch to 25 events over seven years. McIlroy arrived at The Ocean Course with momentum, not least in the fact that he didn’t miss a single putt inside of six feet in that victory at Quail Hollow. Whether or not he arrived here with real confidence isn’t so clear cut.
McIlroy knew there were glaring weaknesses evident even in victory, in particular a driver that was proving about as trustworthy as a card shark. His comments earlier this week suggested a man who knew the win represented progress on the journey, not a destination. “It was a great sort of validation that I’m working on the right things, but it was just a step in the process,” he said.
“I’m happy with where my game is, so I guess if I go out and play my game and do what I know that I can do, then I can see myself shooting good scores on this golf course,” he added. “I’ve just got to go out there, play my game, and if I play my game somewhat close to the best of my ability, I’m sure I’ll have a good chance.”
McIlroy is one of the most transparent athletes in sport, exhibiting the trait that makes agents and PR reps wince: He actually answers the question he’s asked, and thoughtfully so. But on the question about his prospects at Kiawah Island, the tenor of his voice seemed more rote than realistic, as though he were talking about something that could happen, without believing that it would happen.
That difference between belief and execution is the gap between the job descriptions of two men McIlroy has been listening to most of late: Dr. Bob Rotella and Pete Cowen.
The four-time major winner visited with Rotella, a noted mental game guru, before the Masters. Cowen, a respected English swing instructor, came on board in March. One has responsibility for clearing the clutter from McIlroy’s mind, freeing him from the sometimes suffocating pressure heaped on him by others to perform better, not least in major championships. The other is charged with ensuring his swing can deliver what his mind wants.
To what extent they are succeeding is unclear.
It’s hard to categorize McIlroy’s week at Kiawah as anything less than a step backward. He has been losing strokes to the field off the tee, an uncommon occurrence. He’s launching it long—top 10 in driving distance—but unsure of where it will land, finding only 23 of the 42 fairways. He has successfully scrambled around the greens 9 times in 22 attempts, and lost ground with his putter all three days.
With so few positives, it becomes difficult to isolate one particular negative that illustrates his shoddy showing at a course where he romped to an eight-stroke win in 2012. Difficult, but not impossible. On the 12 par 5s McIlroy has played through 54 holes he is 3-over par with six bogeys. On those holes alone, he has lost 11 shots to Mickelson, and that was before the leader even made the turn in Saturday’s round.
Put simply, McIlroy has gone hungry on the very holes he used to feast on.
His struggles are apparent even before he walks to the tee. In his warm-up sessions, he has been locked in conversation with Cowen, rehearsing positions throughout. That has never been his manner of working. With his longtime coach Michael Bannon, who remains in the background, McIlroy would work intensely at home in the weeks preceding golf’s biggest events. With Cowen, there appears to be an uncharacteristic amount of instruction happening in those last hours before a major begins.
Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the 2nd hole during the first round of the PGA Championship. (Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
In March 2018, McIlroy began working with Tour veteran Brad Faxon on his putting. They met at the Bears Club in Jupiter and six days later McIlroy won the Arnold Palmer Invitational with the best putting performance of his career. In that first conversation, Faxon was determined to clear his client’s head of overly technical thoughts. He compared McIlroy’s approach to the shortest, weakest club in his bag with his confidence wielding the longest and most fearsome.
“What do you think about when you’re hitting your driver well?” Faxon asked.
For a split second, McIlroy looked at him quizzically. “Nothing,” he replied.
Could McIlroy reply to that question today with the same certainty, or even the same answer? Whether on the range or on the tee in competition, his mind seems to detour into more technical terrain with the club that was once his Excalibur.
With age and experience, the 32-year-old Northern Irishman has accepted that there’s an ebb and flow to form in elite golf, that today’s discovery can be tomorrow’s lost property. An astute investor, he knows that past results are no guarantee of future returns. He admitted as much on Tuesday. “I’ve maybe got some better memories and better vibes here than most of the other guys do, and that’s obviously nice, but not sure it’s going to enable me to play any better,” he said.
Outside of golf’s more frequently visited venues–Augusta National, St. Andrews—returning to a place where you’ve previously won a major marks a significant mile marker for a golfer. Usually a decade or thereabouts has slipped by. That has not gone unnoticed by McIlroy. “It seems like there’s been a lot of time that’s passed, and I feel like I’m a different person and a different player,” he remarked philosophically.
Such is the march of life and its complications. As Mickelson winds back his clock at Kiawah Island, McIlroy might hear his tick a little louder, despite that victory 13 days ago. Tiger Woods famously said winning takes care of everything. It wasn’t true for Tiger then, and it’s not true for Rory now.
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