Rory McIlroy looks to get eye back on the ball
Whether by design or subconscious prompting, the impression management has begun. From Heathrow airport and the range at Muirfield Village, where he is grouped today with Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy is letting us know via Twitter that he is back on the job.
A picture with his coach addressing a technical issue showed a golfer identifying the problem and working on the fix after successive missed cuts at The Players Championship and last weekend at the BMW PGA. This after the casual declaration on Monday of a radical shift in approach; he would be competing in Memphis the week before the defence of his US Open title, the first time since his rise to power that he has opted to play a tournament directly before a major.
In this and his candid admission that he had taken his eye off the ball, McIlroy is not so much addressing deficiencies as criticism; he is discovering and responding to the negative side of deification. At the first sign of trouble, an attitude and working pattern that had delivered his first major and world No 1 status by the age of 23, not to mention 13 top-five finishes in 15 events before the Sawgrass anomaly, morphed into a stick with which to beat him.
Even before Friday's reverse at Wentworth, where he needed a birdie at the last to avoid a round of 80, the McIlroy deconstruction was cranking up. Watching McIlroy labour through his opening round of 74 was Golf Channel guru Brandel Chamblee, who burst through the studio door with the startling observation that the McIlroy swing, lauded 24 hours earlier by Luke Donald and Lee Westwood for its effortless power, was in fact significantly flawed.
"Nobody on the PGA Tour misses it left more than Rory McIlroy," Chamblee declared breathlessly, clearly pleased at his breakthrough discovery, which, he delighted in telling his audience, centred on exaggerated weight transference to the back foot. "Watch the inside part of his right foot. The sole of the shoe comes off the ground. His foot is actually buckling to the outside. That makes it very difficult to get into the shot."
This is how Charles Darwin must have felt when stepping off HMS Beagle with The Origin Of Species under his arm. Have I got news for you. Chamblee might be right. So what? Golf is a game of infinite tweaks and timing. The swing is a bio-mechanical minefield susceptible to the movement of butterfly wings. Miniscule shifts in emphasis can put a ball bound for the centre of the green on to an adjacent fairway.
Chamblee's critique is noteworthy more for the urgency of the delivery than the content of it, the wearisome need to say something new about a golfer who makes the headlines as readily as Tiger Woods.
McIlroy also set heads shaking with his post-Wentworth dash to Paris to steal some time with his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki ahead of the French Open. No mention of the gym session after the misery of his missed cut on Friday, or the hours spent on the range on Saturday, or the visit to Leeds on Monday to reconvene with fitness expert Steve McGregor.
Donald's resumption of the world No 1 spot at McIlroy's expense with his clinical suppression of Justin Rose and shredding of the field on the final day at Wentworth presented a vivid contrast. On to the green ran Donald's wife and children, the consummate champion wrapping his arms around his brood. The conflicting messages conveyed went like this: just winner and upstanding man reaping the rewards of his labours; reckless dandy hanging out in celebrity heaven with his tennis chick at the most important time of the year.
The truth is they were doing the same thing, falling into the arms of the people whom they regard as special and with whom they share their greatest intimacy. McIlroy, 10 years Donald's junior, is way behind his rival in the evolutionary chain. Yet at the same age Donald had just turned pro and was afforded every indulgence by the absence of scrutiny.
That is not a luxury available to McIlroy, who walks back into the arc lights in the featured group today. Completing the three-ball is Keegan Bradley, who managed to win the final major of 2011, the US PGA in Atlanta, without breaching the golf bubble. McIlroy's epic demise at the Masters last April followed immediately by his record victory at the US Open at Congressional catapulted him into the front room of mainstream America.
They loved his generosity in defeat and the monumental scale of his response; pathos and atonement proved an irresistible mix. Bradley simply sank a putt to win a major. McIlroy entered myth, the consequences of which he has yet to understand.
Unlike Woods, McIlroy was not schooled through the military prism of the father. His dad, Gerry, encouraged the young prodigy, but he was never travelling the same path as Woods, who was fulfilling a destiny defined by parental forces equivalent to a thousand Tiger mums.
In two previous visits to Memorial, McIlroy has finished inside the top 10. We are about to discover the value of the experience banked during the run of improbable consistency. It might be that McIlroy is unable to conjure the majesty of his A game in this period. But let's wait a while before we cast him aside.
There is a raft of exceptional players in this week's field, which as well as Donald, Bradley and Rose includes Masters champion Bubba Watson, early season plunder boy Hunter Mahan, American idol Rickie Fowler plus the usual suspects Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, any one of whom is capable of lapping the field.
At some point across the weekend any one of them might be asked to make a comment on McIlroy, for one reason or another. He has become a golfing touchstone, a player on whom the sport is riding, who drives the business, as the ecstatic response from the men in Memphis to his decision to play the St Jude Classic before his US Open defence demonstrated.
A week ago Donald was asked to put McIlroy's dip into some kind of context. It was a struggle to deliver a coherent response. Not the fault of Donald, but the poverty of the question. "I'm not sure how much Rory has to learn," Donald said. "I suppose I turned pro when I was 23, same age as he is now.
"I think for Rory it's just managing the heavy expectations on him more than anything. You know, he obviously has this abundance of confidence and when he gets a sniff at the lead like he did at the US Open, he handled it beautifully. I know a lot more about my game [than he does]. When I'm not playing well, I'm still able to grind out a score."
Grinding does not quite fit the McIlroy profile, but that is the requirement over the next fortnight as he heads towards the bedlam of a major championship defence on an Olympic Club course he has yet to visit. The Americans have a phrase for it: winning ugly. Maybe this is the week when McIlroy really learns to play.