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How Brad Faxon gave Rory McIlroy his putting freedom back in just three hours

 

By Brian Keogh

Bill Shankly was half-joking when he made that famous "life and death" quip about football's importance.

As Leo Messi shows week in, week out, you can be a global icon and a commercial juggernaut and still compete by playing with the joyous abandon of a kid in a schoolyard.

That's part of the key for Rory McIlroy's return to golf's top table in such sensational fashion at Bay Hill on Sunday, when he produced the best putting week of his life to close with an eight-under 64 and win the Arnold Palmer Invitational by three strokes.

Just seven weeks shy of his 29th birthday, he retains the boyish charm that endeared him to golf fans worldwide, including the late Arnold Palmer himself.

At his best, he plays instinctively, ripping his tee-shots and rifling his irons at the flag before brushing his putts confidently at the hole like a tyke out for a practice round at Holywood.

When he starts thinking about how he does what he does, he struggles, especially on the greens.

He three-putted, four-putted and even five-putted from the west coast to the Florida swing, frittering away the small treasure of confidence he'd slowly built up when he returned from a three-month hibernation in the Middle East in January.

Even Jack Nicklaus pointed that out when he sent McIlroy a congratulatory tweet on Sunday.

"You had been struggling - by your standards - but no longer," the Golden Bear said of McIlroy's first win as a married man and his climb to World No.7.

"You were swinging and playing beautifully this week. And obviously, the putter was working very well."

With Tiger Woods contending for the third week running and a constellation of stars ready to shine, McIlroy's return to form makes the forthcoming Masters must-see television.

"I kept telling everyone I was close," McIlroy said. "No one would believe me."

Close or not, his decision to make contact with putting savant Brad Faxon last week could turn out to be a watershed moment in his career.

A planned one-hour session at the Bear's Club following his missed cut in Tampa turned into a three-hour meeting that he insists was more about psychology than putting.

As US writer Ron Green Jnr put it in 'Global Golf Post': "It's a simple thing but talking to Faxon about putting is like asking Daniel Day-Lewis about acting."

But like Woods, who spoke recently about his father's instruction to him as a child to "putt to the picture", McIlroy "got" Faxon straight away.

"He freed up my head more than my stroke," said the Ulsterman, a four-time Major winner.

"I felt like maybe I was complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts... The objective is to get that ball in the hole and that's it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit."

As he told 'Golfweek' later on Sunday night, "I'm trying to get back to feeling how I did as a kid, where your instinct just takes over. The last time I had freedom like this was probably back in 2014."

McIlroy won two Majors in 2014 but he has won none since then.

Crucially, as far as the upcoming Masters is concerned, he has never putted as well as he did on Sunday and it's no wonder that he's now the bookies' favourite to complete the career Grand Slam in Augusta.

Ranked 124th for strokes gained putting after the Valspar Championship, he is now 23rd after topping the strokes gained charts at Bay Hill, picking up 2.5 shots per round on the field.

As putting turnarounds go, this was a revolution, aided in part by his decision to return to a longer, 34.25-inch putter that allowed him to feel more comfortable over the ball.

In slaying his putting demons, he's in a similar position to 2012 when he climbed up to World No.1, lost form in mid-season but then came back to win the US PGA title, two FedEx Cup play-off events and the season-ending DP World Tour Championship.

Again, it was a reminder to play like a kid that flipped the switch.

"He sort of just said to me, 'You know, just go out there and have fun and enjoy it and just smile'," the popular Ulsterman said of Dave Stockton's advice to him when they were in Akron that year.

With the physical issues - including a rib injury - that plagued him in 2017 now behind him and a minor thought tightening up his swing, Sunday's victory was McIlroy's first with his TaylorMade clubs and perhaps, more importantly, his first with pal Harry Diamond on the bag.

Career graphs are never straight lines and McIlroy's talent makes the troughs more difficult to comprehend.

"I wish it wasn't like that," he said. "I wish it was more in a straight line but you have to take the highs with the lows and keep rolling.

"I don't know if it's the way I play the game but it's very fickle. It's up and down. It ebbs and flows. It's the way golf is."

Often compared with the more calculating Woods and Nicklaus, McIlroy might just have more in common with swashbuckling Palmer.

"I wish he would have been at the top of the hill to shake my hand when I came off the 18th green there," McIlroy said after his win.

When he first played at Bay Hill in 2015, McIlroy had dinner with Palmer and thought it strange that great man would ask for some A1 steak sauce for his fish.

"I remember him asking the server, 'Can I get some A1 Sauce?'" said McIlroy.

"And the server said, 'For your fish, Mr Palmer?' He said, 'No, for me'."

In other words, it's okay to colour outside the lines and work out what works for you.

"I think you have to play the game to really appreciate that," he said of golf's roller-coaster nature. "It's not as black and white as some people make it out to be."

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