Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Can Rory McIlroy pull out of his tailspin?

Rory has only two weeks to save his saeson

Rory McIlroy

The countdown clock is ticking as Rory McIlroy tries to solve one of the most troubling conundrums of his career.

With just two weeks remaining to his defence of the PGA Championship title, time is against the 24-year-old as he tries to salvage even a crumb of comfort from a deeply dispiriting year in the Major championship arena.

McIlroy's confidence, already at a low ebb, took a battering as he missed the cut at The Open for the first time by four strokes.

Having failed to raise a decent gallop on the weekend at the Masters and US Open, this amounts to a frustratingly fruitless time at the Majors, which would have been unimaginable as McIlroy strode into 2013 on top of his form and the world.

He'll go into next week's Bridgestone World Golf Championship needing a turnaround even more dramatic than the one at Firestone 12 months ago which put McIlroy on the high road to his second record-breaking Major victory at Kiawah Island the following week.

On that occasion, a pep talk from putting coach Dave Stockton helped flick a switch in the youngster's head.

Stockton effectively told McIlroy that if he smiles on the golf course, the world and even Lady Luck are more likely to smile with him ... but those who pout generally do so alone.

Judging by his abject performance at Muirfield and as he missed the cut in another two of his last five tournaments, the BMW PGA at Wentworth and Irish Open at Carton, it'll take more than words to shake McIlroy out of his torpor.

Still, barring injury, he'll get to play all 72 holes at Firestone, where McIlroy has posted 11 rounds out of 12 in the 60s in romping to three successive top-10 finishes.

These four rounds will be critical to the Holywood native's prospect of launching a creditable defence of the Wanamaker Trophy at Oak Hill next Thursday week.

As McIlroy concedes, the solution to his predicament can only be found in competitive play, though one suspects he has plunged so deep into crisis, it's going to take more than one tournament for him to climb out. Basically, the PGA Championship is coming a fortnight too soon.

Plainly shell-shocked after his opening 79 at Muirfield, McIlroy admitted that elements of his play and decision-making that afternoon had been "thoughtless" and described putting into a bunker as "so brain dead".

McIlroy added that he might consult with a sports psychologist in an effort to regain focus on the course. Yet after finding some consolation in the final 11 holes of Friday's 75, it came as no surprise to read over the weekend that he planned to work things out for himself.

That's classic McIlroy, a fiercely independent, strong-willed, bright and usually cheerful young fellow with a clear vision of his own destiny.

Those who rushed to label him the 'New Tiger' in the wake of his sensational US Open victory at Congressional in 2011 missed the point. McIlroy is very much his own man and is gifted enough to plough his own furrow.

Still, there is much for him to learn from the success of Phil Mickelson as the 43-year-old surged ever closer to legendary status with Sunday's stunning Open triumph.

Though nearly 20 years older than McIlroy and engaged in a winning battle with psoriatic arthritis, Mickelson often seems to play for the sheer joy of it. He rarely, if ever, looks as world-weary as the young Ulsterman does on occasion.

The clear priority in his life is his wife Amy, their three children and his extended family, as Mickelson proved by flying across America and back to his daughter's eighth-grade graduation in US Open week.

Yet he would finish second behind Justin Rose the following Sunday at Merion – Mickelson's recovery from a heart-breaking sixth runner-up finish at his national Open to win the Claret Jug last Sunday stands in testament to his strength of character and determination.

Instead of merely accepting limitations placed upon him by his upbringing in American golf, Mickelson vowed in 2004, the year of his Major breakthrough at the Masters, to acquire the shots and skills necessary to succeed in the alien world of seaside breezes, rock-hard fairways and perplexing greens.

So now he has got within one leg of joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in an exclusive club by winning all four Major titles.

McIlroy is gifted enough to one day win a career Grand Slam of his own. Indeed, he's halfway there.

It was interesting to hear McIlroy agree that he's not as myopically devoted to golf as his boyhood idols, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods, that he has outside interests which he shares with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. Well, there are few better examples than Mickelson of how to strike a happy balance between real life and success on the course.

Of course, along with vast experience and maturity, Mickelson has a well-oiled machine to fall back upon, ranging from his career-long agent Steve Loy, formerly his coach at college in Arizona, to his caddie of 20-plus years Jim 'Bones' Mackay.

Throw in his team of advisors at Gaylord Sports Management and coach Butch Harmon, plus his nine-year relationship with Callaway, and you have a settled, stable crew which essentially leaves Mickelson as free as possible to play swashbuckling golf.

It helps keep him young.

McIlroy is also blessed with a caddie, JP Fitzgerald, who also is a friend, plus a lifelong coach in Michael Bannon.

It would have been almost impossible for him to resist a life-changing $20m contract to switch clubs to Nike. His desire to set up a back-room team made up of family, close friends and confidants makes perfect sense, if the timing of his decision to leave Horizon Sports Management after just 18 months is not.

Amid recent upheavals, McIlroy sometimes appears to have forfeited the joy of seeing and making great golf shots in the way that Mickelson does. It's clear from recent statements by Faldo and Nicklaus, who both have an affection for McIlroy, that they're concerned about the youngster's "100% commitment" to his art.

"But he too talented and too hard working a not to get it back," added Nicklaus. But can he get it back in a fortnight?

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