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AUGUSTA, Ga. – As Rory McIlroy drove home from a recent visit to see Tiger Woods, who is recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash, he couldn’t stop thinking about the trophy cabinet with 15 major championship baubles in Tiger’s family room. McIlroy wondered where the rest of the trophies from his 82 PGA Tour titles and various other worldwide victories were housed.
“He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I go, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, my mom has some, and a few are in the office and a few are wherever,'” McIlroy recalled in his pre-tournament interview ahead of the 85th Masters. “That was just always in my mind, he talked about these are the four weeks that matter. So, the weeks that didn’t matter, you know, he racked them up at a pretty fast clip. But I’m just thinking to myself, how easy must that have felt for him if all he cared about were four weeks a year. The other stuff must have been like practice. So that’s like a really—that’s a cool perspective to have, right. Yeah, that’s all I could think about on the way home.”
Well, there was one more thing: “And I’m was glad he was OK, too.”
McIlroy’s mind this week is devoted to winning the Masters and becoming the fifth player to complete the career Grand Slam. Yet he arrived at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday mired in what qualifies as a slump for him. He hasn’t won since the WGC-HSBC in China in November 2019 and has fallen to No. 12 in the world. His major drought dates to the 2014 PGA Championship.
“It’s amazing to me that he hasn’t won here yet,” said ESPN golf analyst Curtis Strange. “I certainly expect him to, but this year, he’s going to have to find something quickly.”
Indeed, McIlroy, who finished T-5 at the Masters in November after an opening 75, enters this week with lowered expectations having flamed out of the Players Championship in March. After shooting 79-75 and missing the cut, McIlroy enlisted swing instructor Pete Cowen, who he’s known since he was 13, to try to revamp his swing. The pairing with Cowen, who has tasted major championship glory with the likes of Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell and Brooks Koepka, just to name a few, is an intriguing match. Count Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee among those curious to see if a fresh set of eyes can pay quick dividends for McIlroy.
“I think one of the most exciting things going into this Masters really for me is to see what Pete Cowen and Rory McIlroy are capable of doing when they’re home for a week and they have time to work on—if you’re arguably looking at the most talented golfer in the world and you’re already talking about arguably the most talented teacher—I’m curious what those two could do,” Chamblee said.
McIlroy blamed his swing problems—he ranks No. 146 in driving accuracy and his wedge game has been atrocious, ranking No. 202 from 75-100 yards this season—on bad habits developed during speed training drills in the fall chasing distance after Bryson DeChambeau overpowered Winged Foot and dominated the field by six strokes at the U.S. Open. ESPN’s host of its Masters coverage Scott Van Pelt found it remarkable that McIlroy of all people went down a rabbit hole in search of more distance.
“He saw what Bryson did at Winged Foot and thought, well, I’ve got to get me some of that. That’s just amazing to me,” Van Pelt said during a media conference call. “The notion that his good enough wasn’t good enough, I just can’t fathom that.”
To McIlroy’s credit, he has realized his game was heading down a slippery path. It’s too early to tell whether he can nip these bad habits in the bud, but a new set of eyes may be just what he needed.
Justin Thomas (left) and Rory McIlroy walk across the Sarazen Bridge on the 15th hole during a practice round for the 2021 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports)
“When you don’t understand why you’re hitting certain shots, you can become lost and you can start to think of all sorts of stuff,” McIlroy explained. “I felt like every time I was going to the range, I was trying something different. Now I feel like I’m on a path that’s a little more structured and I have a better understanding of why I’m doing things and why certain shots do what they do and why certain movements produce a golf shot.”
He made a decisive move to beef up his team, especially with it being difficult for longtime coach Michael Bannon, who is based in Northern Ireland, to work with McIlroy due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. But can the four-time Northern Irishman major winner turn it around quickly enough to be a factor in the Masters?
“I don’t think he’s that far off,” Strange said. “He is one swing thought away from shooting 65 every day.”
“You can go out to the range one day completely lacking in confidence and think you stink, and walk home that night and feel like you’re Jack Nicklaus and think I found it,” said Chamblee, echoing the same sentiment.
But while McIlroy would like nothing more than to rediscover his major mojo, he’s taking a more practical long-term approach.
“I’m just at the start of a journey here that I know will get me back to where I want to be,” McIlroy said.
And just what type of a golfer does hope to be?
“I think that golfer going forward is just a little more knowledgeable about what he does and how he swings the club and the movements that he needs to make to basically hit three shots, right: Hit a draw, hit a fade, hit one straight. That’s all you need to do in the game of golf. It’s not that hard. It seems it at times.”