Inside the Ropes: McIlroy faces criticism entering Match Play event

Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Rory McIlroy hasn't said much since leaving Abu Dhabi last month after missing the cut with his new Nike clubs, but plenty of others have been talking about him.
While the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings has been off with instructor Michael Bannon trying to get a feel for the new sticks, he has been a topic of conversation ahead of his return this week in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
Some have voiced concern, while those who know him best don't seem worried.
Nick Faldo first expressed that it was "dangerous" for the 23-year-old McIlroy to make changes while at the top of his game, not to mention at the top of the game.
Recently, another former champion seconded the motion.
"Rory's momentum was very good last year but it can be very dangerous to change clubs," said two-time major champion Sandy Lyle of Scotland. "It's the driver and the fairway woods that are the biggest issues. Rory will adapt to the irons pretty quickly, although he will have teething problems.
"It only takes a little chink in the armor in this game for it to start becoming a worry. It might just be that he goes through a bit of a hiccup for a few months before he gets back into full flow."
We might not find out this week because McIlroy could play well and still lose to Shane Lowry in the first round of the Accenture at Dove Mountain.
That's the way it can go in match play.
McIlroy breezed through five opponents last year before losing to Hunter Mahan in the final. He is a strong match player, but anything can and will happen when they tee it up this week near Tucson.
Ian Poulter is a Ryder Cup stalwart and captured the Accenture title in 2010, but has lost in the first round each of the last two years.
Tiger Woods has prevailed three times in the tournament, but he also has been upset twice by Nick O'Hern of Australia in early rounds, and also was taken down by Peter O'Malley of Australia in the first round in 2002 and by Thomas Bjorn of Denmark in his 2011 opener.
Even if that happens to McIlroy this week, Graeme McDowell doesn't expect him to stay down long.
"When you're as talented as Rory McIlroy, I don't really care what your driver says, don't care what your iron says or what your golf ball says," McDowell, who has teamed with McIlroy in the Ryder Cup and the World Cup, said on the "Morning Drive" show on the Golf Channel. "When you're as good as he is, it's a transition that should be pretty straightforward for him to make.
"The biggest hurdle that he has right now is in his mind, the pressure that is put on him by the world media, by people, and most importantly that he's put on himself from inside him. You've just got to get across the hurdle of playing well a few times with the new equipment.
"He's a talented kid. I've never seen a guy make the game look so easy. It doesn't matter what it says on the back of his iron. He'll be OK, and it's just a matter of time before he settles down and comes to terms with what's in his head, in regards to the pressures he's created for himself."
McIlroy has dealt pretty well with the pressure for a kid of 23, claiming two major titles and climbing to the top of the game much the same way Woods did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While his ball-striking has never been questioned, he made a big move once he started working with putting guru Dave Stockton, who doesn't expect a long transitional period with the new clubs.
"He put 14 clubs in the bag and hadn't played in two months," Stockton said, brushing off the missed cut in Abu Dhabi. "He's pumped about the clubs. He has no question he can use those clubs. I just think it was a little bit early.
"With his touch he will have more problems with the driver. That's the one it will take him a little bit longer to get."
However, McIlroy ditched the Nike Method putter in round two in Abu Dhabi, going back to the Scotty Cameron model he has used for several years, but said that was only because he felt it would be more effective on the slower greens.
As for the Nike Covert driver, which is a big part of the company's marketing campaign with McIlroy, he agrees with Stockton.
"I'm really happy with the ball and the wedges," Rory said in a quick review of the new equipment before leaving Abu Dhabi. "The putter is good on fast greens that I've practiced on.
"I just need to ... probably just need to find a driver that I'm comfortable with, because I didn't drive the ball at all well. I feel like that's a big advantage for me is driving the ball."
That's almost as a big question this week as how McIlory will play -- what's in and out of his bag?

PGA TOUR: WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., Wednesday through Sunday.
TV: Wednesday, noon-6 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel; Thursday and Friday, 2-6 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel; Saturday, noon-2 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel and 2-6 p.m. EST on NBC; and Sunday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel and 2-6 p.m. EST on NBC.
LAST YEAR: Hunter Mahan delayed Rory McIlroy's rise to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings by building a 4-up lead through 10 holes and holding on for a 2-and-1 victory at Dove Mountain. McIlroy was a huge favorite after collecting seven birdies in a span of 10 holes earlier in the day while beating Lee Westwood, 3 and 1, in a semifinal match featuring two players who could have taken the No. 1 spot with a victory in the Accenture. Luke Donald, who lost to Ernie Els in the first round, remained at No. 1 for the 55th week in the last two years, although McIlroy would overtake him the next week by winning the Honda Classic. Mahan claimed his fourth PGA Tour victory and joined Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Els, Geoff Ogilvy and Darren Clarke as the only players to win multiple WGC titles since the series began in 1999. Hunter, who also captured the 2010 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, carded 35 birdies in his 96 holes over six matches.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club in Newport Beach, Calif., March 15-17.
TV: Friday, 8:30-10:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday and Sunday, 7:30-9:30 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.
LAST YEAR: Loren Roberts overcame three bogeys in a span of four holes through No. 17 by holing a five-foot birdie putt on the final hole to claim his 13th victory on the Champions Tour by two strokes over Mark Calcavecchia, Tom Kite and Bernhard Langer. Roberts, who had not won in a span of 34 tournaments dating to 2010, began the day two strokes behind 54-hole leader Calcavecchia, but took the lead for good with birdies on three of his first four holes in the final round en route to a 2-under-par 69. Langer, who was in the group in front of Roberts, was only two strokes behind but could not take advantage of Roberts' late struggles because he carded a double-bogey 5 on the 17th hole, where his putt from the fringe rolled into the right greenside bunker, and he shot 70. Kite closed with a 69 and Calcavecchia struggled to a 73.

LPGA TOUR: Honda LPGA Thailand on the Pattaya Old Course at Siam Country Club in Chonburi, Thailand, Thursday through Sunday.
TV: Thursday, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. EST; Friday, 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. EST; Saturday, 2:30-6 p.m. EST, and Sunday, 1:30-6 p.m. EST, on the Golf Channel each day.
LAST YEAR: Yani Tseng of Thailand, the No. 1 player in the Women's Rolex World Golf Rankings, successfully defend her title and won for the 13th time on the LPGA Tour with a spectacular birdie on the final hole to beat Ai Miyazato of Japan by one stroke. After Miyazato, who won the tournament in 2010, hit her approach shot close on the closing hole, Tseng almost knocked down the flagstick with her approach and tapped in the winning putt, as both players birdied the last two holes. Tseng, who opened the tournament with a 1-over-par 73, got to within one shot of 54-hole leader Miyazato by shooting 65-65 in the middle rounds, before closing with a 66 as the Japanese start shot 68.

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