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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – “What are you most frustrated with?”
The question hung in the air for 10, 15, 20 seconds.
Rory McIlroy stood behind the microphone, gently tossing a ball back and forth.
“Um ...,” he started, seemingly weighing how deep he wanted to dive, before he finally took the plunge:
“Probably the swing issues and where it all stems from.”
He meant last October. And the speed training. And the tweaks that made his swing too long, too flat, too rotational.
In the weeks following the U.S. Open, and with some time to kill before a run of West Coast starts and the Masters, McIlroy pounded drivers, ratcheted up his speed and pushed his swing to the max. Despite a 5-foot-9-inch frame, he is already the longest hitter, pound for pound, on the PGA Tour, ranking first in driving distance in 2017 and ’18 and finishing among the top 4 each of the past five years.
But following the U.S. Open, the game had changed – or so he thought. He wanted more. Needed more.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open,” he said.
Indeed, at the time – and even more so in hindsight – that felt like a transformative moment, not just for DeChambeau but for his peers, as well. Heading into the U.S. Open, McIlroy had finally snapped out of his summer malaise, posting top-12s in back-to-back starts before arriving at Winged Foot. After a strong opening round, McIlroy was squarely in the mix, desperate to end a seven-year drought in the majors. Stars dotted the early leaderboards. And still DeChambeau blew them all away, winning by six strokes and slaying one of the most ferocious courses on the planet. His dramatic transformation was validated – the weight gains, the speed gains, the distance gains. All of it. He bombed it the farthest, wedged it the closest and putted it among the best. How are you going to top that?
“The one thing that people don’t appreciate is how good Bryson is out of the rough,” McIlroy said. “Not only because of how upright he is, but because his short irons are longer than standard, so he can get a little more speed through the rough than other guys.”
But McIlroy chased the speed, too. A bunch of guys did. Dustin Johnson tried it. Tony Finau tried it. If that’s the way the game is headed, if that’s how courses are going to be set up, yeah, they wanted an edge, too.
“It helps,” said McIlroy, who has gained 3 mph in his swing speed over the last season. “It really helps.”
Except not every Tour player is shaped like DeChambeau. Not every player swings like him. Not every player sets up their equipment like him. That’s why it’s easy to chase speed ... and go off the rails.
“I felt like that was sort of the infancy of where these swing problems have come from,” McIlroy said. “So it’s just a matter of trying to get back out of it.”
McIlroy was speaking late Friday after missing the cut in his title defense here at The Players Championship. Rounds of 79-75 could have been easily dismissed as just a bad week, but this was coming, in some form. Wanting to play his way into form after a two-month hiatus, McIlroy signed up for an ambitious schedule: seven events in eight weeks, culminating here at the PGA Tour’s premier event. Over the past few months there were a few bright spots, with four top-10s, but at the end of this stretch he was toast. He had no energy, no momentum, dwindling confidence. “I used to think four weeks in a row was nothing,” he said, but now he’s 31 and achy and longing for a few nights in his own bed.
Of course, that’s not why McIlroy struggled here at TPC Sawgrass, where he finished 10 shots off the cut line and 19 back of leader Lee Westwood. He didn’t do anything well, not one thing, ranking outside the top 140 both off the tee and on the greens. This had been building: The inconsistent iron play. The Sunday retreats in Abu Dhabi and San Diego and Orlando. Last Sunday at Bay Hill, after a final-round 76, he wondered aloud whether he needed to “go in another direction,” not in terms of a personnel change but with his swing. He knew then what he said again Friday: The issues he’d gotten himself into over the past few months can’t just be undone with a few quality range sessions at home.
“It’ll take a bit of time,” he said. “It’s not like it’s that far away. I’d still like to keep the speed, but just not make the swings that are sort of producing that speed.”
The past few weeks have underscored how DeChambeau remains a few steps ahead of his biggest threats. A month ago, he recognized that he was reaching a point of diminishing returns. He dropped a dozen pounds. He plateaued his speed training. He switched to a driver head that spins more and travels less but keeps him in play. It’s working: He won last week at Bay Hill and is in the top 5 again here at TPC Sawgrass, evolving and adapting on two courses that are wildly disparate tests for the Tour’s biggest bomber.
As for McIlroy, well, he’s headed about four hours south on Interstate 95, humbled and trying to regain what’s been lost.
“I want to get on the range right away and try to get through this,” he said. “I’m pretty determined to get back to where I know I can be.”