Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Frustrated Rory McIlroy in big hurry to master new clubs

Rory McIlroy has signed a huge deal with Nike, but he must get used to their equipment

Rory McIlroy has 29 days before stepping back into the spotlight. Precious time in which to find a driver he can trust and a putter he can make work on fast greens or slow.

After the hype and unworldly optimism of the official launch of his new $20m-per-annum (£12.6m) deal with Nike, reality bit hard as the Holywood star missed the cut in Abu Dhabi.

Every professional golfer will confirm that changing clubs is like rearing babies — teething troubles and sleepless nights are inevitable, but it eventually works out in the end.

As world No. 1 McIlroy will be under intense pressure when he next tees it up for real in the first round of the Accenture Match Play World Championship of Golf on Wednesday February 20.

Indeed, he'll probably find himself under a microscope until he wins with his new equipment. Whether or not he lets this affect him is entirely up to McIlroy himself.

Pay any heed to the nay-sayers and McIlroy may as well have the theme from Jaws thrumming in his ears as he walks to the first tee in Tucson.

1 KEEP THE FAITH RORY, HARRINGTON URGES

Of all the advice offered by his peers in Abu Dhabi, the most prescient came from Padraig Harrington as he urged McIlroy to ignore the media hype and keep faith with himself and the game that won him two Majors.

“Rory's wise enough to know this,” said Dublin's three-time Major champion. “He can’t let anybody get in his head. It's not the only threat he faces, but it's the biggest one.

“I played a few holes in practice with him during the week and he was hitting it fine. He just doesn't want anyone to get in his head or let them influence his thinking.

“That's the problem with being world No. 1. The spotlight is always there. As much as he tries to keep the head down, the media are going to ask him the same leading questions ... and if you're asked a question often enough, it can get into your head.”

2 LOWRY AND McILROY PERFECT STABLEMATES

This week in Dubai, McIlroy and swing coach Michael Bannon will put the lessons of Abu Dhabi to good effect, with technicians from ‘the Oven', Nike's high-tech development facility in Fort Worth, Texas, on hand to offer their support.

Yet Shane Lowry, a stablemate of McIlroy's at Horizon Sports Management, could also play a key role in helping the 23-year-old get those new clubs into good working order.

Lowry is in Dubai to work on his game with coach Neil Manchip and both Tour stars would do themselves a big favour by playing a round or two.

Lowry prefers to do his practice on the course. The Clara champion, 59th in the world after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, resumes his bid to force his way into the top 50 in time to make April's US Masters at next week's Omega Desert Classic.

Asked for the best way to get to know a new set of clubs, Harrington replied: “I believe there's no substitute for playing in low-key competition.

“The ideal way is to go out there and gamble, so you've got something on the line, but there's no people looking on, watching you. You need enough of an edge that you've got focus, but not so much that you've got millions of people asking ‘is that the club or is it the ball?' every time you hit a shot 15 feet past the flag.”

3 IT CAN TAKE THREE MONTHS TO GET A GRIP ON NEW CLUBS

OUR in Abu Dhabi reputedly paid $4m to bring both McIlroy and Tiger Woods to their tournament — but the information gleaned from this visit could be priceless to Rory.

Rust accumulated during the eight-week break since he won the DP World Championship played its part in making this a chastening experience for the world No. 1 and his new sponsor. Yet the opportunity to test his new equipment in the heat of competition should bring the work that needs to be done into clear perspective.

Pointing out that he “hits the ball 30 yards shorter in practice on Tuesday than I do in the tournament,” Harrington said: “Tournament rounds always tell you what a club is doing — whether it's prone to a flyer; if it gives you this spin or that.

“All clubs are slightly different ... and you won't discover it on a launch monitor on the range. When it comes to testing, you've got to work these things in an array of different playing conditions. You'd want two or three months, to really understand your equipment.”

4 ABOVE ALL, NIKE MUST COME UP WITH DRIVER THAT WORKS

McIlroy will hope to dispel any questions about his clubs before the US Masters. Victory at the Match Play, defending his Honda Classic title or a win either at Doral or the Shell Houston Open would end all debate.

Though he stirred headlines in Abu Dhabi by replacing his Nike Method putter with his old Scotty Cameron (to little effect), McIlroy's issue with the weight of his new putter's head should be resolved easily.

Problems with his new Covert driver are critical, as McIlroy's power and accuracy off the tee underpin his world-beating feats.

His obvious frustration with the club during an extensive pre-round practice session on Friday and his inconsistency off the tee during play on both days could be measured in his exasperated parting words: “I have to find a driver.”

McIlroy hit the sweet spot for Nike's marketing department during last week's official launch when he said the driver “blew me away. My ball speed was up ... I thought I hit it far before, but maybe this is taking it to a new level.”

Driver sales account for 50per cent of revenue made by club manufacturers and the promise of added length persuades most punters to buy.

Yet on the rare occasions they managed to hit the same fairway, McIlroy's ball usually fell short of Tiger's — yet the Ulster youngster consistently had the measure of Woods with his old equipment. Restoring his ball flight to its former glory is the principal challenge to Nike's boffins.

5 STOCKTON'S PEP TALK CANNOT BE FORGOTTEN

It was disconcerting early in Friday's second round to note McIlroy's hangdog demeanour as the tide turned against him, while Woods battled like a true Tiger and would have made the cut but for a two-stroke penalty incurred for an incorrect drop.

American short-game guru Dave Stockton (70) flicked a switch in McIlroy's head (and his career) when he had a quiet word last summer reminding him not to betray his emotions so easily; to remember he's living his boyhood dream and smile.

Ideally, McIlroy should carry a tape of their conversation last August, the week before the US PGA Championship at Kiawah.

For now, Harrington's advice to McIlroy is best: lock away the laptop for the next month or two; ignore all golf pundits and don't allow anyone get into his head.

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