| 14.7°C Belfast

Rory McIlroy optimistic for return to form after coach Michael Bannon flies in while world number one battle hots up

Close

Rory McIlroy is back after a two-week break.

Rory McIlroy is back after a two-week break.

AP

Rory McIlroy is back after a two-week break.

Rory McIlroy is optimistic that a visit from coach Michael Bannon can spark a return to form at this week’s Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.

The world number one used a two-week break from competitive action to see lifelong mentor Bannon for the first time since early February, with the former Holywood and Bangor GC pro flying out to stay with McIlroy in Florida.

Before the Tour was brought to an abrupt halt by the coronavirus pandemic in March, McIlroy had been on a run of seven consecutive top five finishes but since the restart, he has failed to break the top ten in three outings.

While there were flashes of brilliance, such as seven under par 63s at both the Travelers Championship and Charles Schwab Invitational, McIlroy is optimistic he can now cut out the errors that have so far cost him a chance at a Sunday challenge.

“I feel like my game is definitely better now after that week that I had with Michael,” he said.

“It was nice to spend some time with him and get some good work done to feel a bit better about my game and my swing.

“I've sent him videos over the last few months and he can see what the swing is doing, but it's hard for him to see what the ball flight is and all stuff that goes along with being a golf coach."

McIlroy said the pair were working on a ‘couple of little’ tweaks to his swing, focusing on the position of his right arm and preventing the clubface from coming in closed at impact.

As well as any mechanical issues, the Holywood star also reckons the ban on supporters, which has now been extended to September, has been a barrier to rediscovering his top form.

“If anything I've realised that it's very hard for me to keep focus out here,” he said. “I feel like when there are fans and there's that energy, it's easy to get into that mindset that you need.

“But when you don't have that, I felt the first three weeks my mind was wandering a little bit. I think some of the mistakes I was making were because of that.

“It could go both ways, but I think fans or no fans, if you're in with a chance to win a tournament, you're going to feel it regardless.”

As a result of his sketchy form, McIlroy's world number one ranking is under threat this week.

All of the world’s top five golfers are in the field and Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Webb Simpson all know they could end the tournament on top of the list.

“If I play well, then the ranking takes care of itself,” said McIlroy, refusing to get caught up in the bun-fight. “All I'm thinking about this week is playing well and putting up some good numbers."

McIlroy is playing his opening two rounds alongside Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka and the trio get their first round under way this evening at 6.17pm BST.

The other two Irishmen in the field are preparing for their second successive tournament at Muirfield Village as Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry both teed it up in last week’s Workday Charity Open.

Lowry, however, will again this week be without regular caddie Bo Martin. The Ardglass man has not been on the Open champion’s bag since the PGA Tour swung back into action last month.

Darren Reynolds, who has previously worked with Paul McGinley and Paul Dunne, has been taking his place while Lowry’s brother-in-law fills in this week.

“Bo has had a bit of a strange few months,” explained the golfer. “He's just had his second kid two weeks ago and his dad died a couple of weeks before that after a long illness. He'll be back out for Memphis (WGC St Jude Invitational on July 30-August 2).”

Lowry would this week be defending his Open title, had the coronavirus pandemic not wreaked havoc with the golfing calendar.

Having had a year to reflect on the achievement, he seems just as delighted as ever.

“I'm just very grateful that I got to achieve something like that, that I actually have one of those on my mantelpiece and my name will be on that trophy forever,” he smiled.

“I'm still very driven and very focused on achieving more things in my career, but no matter what happens, I'll always have that, and I'm pretty happy with that.”

In four starts since golf’s return, Lowry has missed two cuts before showing gradual improvements with a T60th place and then T39th at last week’s Workday event at Muirfield.

“I worked very hard in my time off, probably as hard as I've ever worked in my life on the range and in the gym,” he said. “I'm still fairly optimistic where my game is at. I made 20 birdies and an eagle last week, and I'm pretty happy with that. I just need to cut out the mistakes this week and you never know what could happen.”

Lowry begins his opening round at 6.06pm with Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose in the group ahead of McIlroy while McDowell has the final tee-time at 7.01pm alongside Dylan Frittelli.

Belfast Telegraph