Five things Rory McIlroy must do to regain his Major winning habit and dispel Jack Nicklaus' doubts over his 'effort'
Having videoed himself coming within snarling distance of a lion at a private game reserve in the Kruger National Park on the weekend, Rory McIlroy will set out on the 2017 season at the BMW South African Open on Thursday determined to re-establish himself as the king of the golfing jungle.
Certainly McIlroy is the overwhelming favourite at the Glendower Golf Club, as he tries to end his curse of never winning his opening tournament of the year, Yet when it comes to the calendar’s top events, he has to stand in line with the rest of the game’s top five in Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth, who have all broken their major ducks since McIlroy won the most recent of his four.
No doubt, the Ulsterman is still right up there as the world No 2, but following two major-less campaigns, it is clear what he needs to restate his dominance and that will be the long-term objective when he tees it up in the exclusive country club near Johannesburg.
Nick Faldo is also in the field and when talking to McIlroy on Tuesday night, the Englishman could sense the 27-year-old’s anticipation. “The world is Rory’s lobster or whatever the most expensive dish on the menu is,” Faldo said. “You know they’ve been shuffling that world No 1 spot around themselves for a while, but Rory knows his goals.
“Of course, the majors are the most important thing and that’s the trick he and everyone is trying to master – gearing himself up physically, mentally and technically when he turns up for the big four.
“But it’s funny. He’s wins two on the bounce like he did in 2014 when he was on absolutely on top form. However, it just shows that when you are a little off in whatever department it might be, suddenly winning tournaments and majors is really hard work. It just doesn’t fall into place and Rory will have thought ‘wow!’. That’s all the difference is, but I think he realises that he has to knuckle down, that he can't waste shots and that he has to turn everything up five per cent.”
Jack Nicklaus said something similar in the festive break, although from his headline-making mouth it inevitably came across as if the 18-time major winner was scolding his young friend. “Rory has won and played on his talent to this point,” Nicklaus told The BBC. “If he wishes to dominate and go forward, then he’s got to improve. He has to work hard, he’s got to focus. Whether he wants to be the greatest player to have played the game... well, that’s his decision if he wants to make the effort to try to do that.”
In an interview with The Sunday Independent last week, McIlroy actually placed confines on how successful he would like to be, declaring he would not want the life of Tiger Woods, with his 14 majors and claustrophobic fame. Yet it is quite clear he craves more than he has and, in truth, all Nicklaus was saying is that McIlroy is at a crossroads in his career, with the next level to climb.
Of course, he could take that leap in April by winning the Masters and becoming only the sixth player in history to complete the career grand slam. And after sounding McIlroy out about his enthusiasm levels, Faldo, a three-time Augusta winner, has no concerns.
“Rory’s obviously very determined,” Faldo said. “He’s playing a lot - he told me he’s going to have played nine events by the time he gets to Augusta. So he plainly wants to be ready and match-fit doesn’t he? With Rory it’s all about the confidence. If he’s playing with absolute confidence, then he’s the man to beat.”
McIlroy will appear in Abu Dhabi next week, and alongside Tiger Woods in Dubai two weeks later, before continuing the whirlwind schedule to places as diverse as Los Angeles, Palm Spring Gardens, Mexico City, Orlando and Austin. It looks an exhaustive schedule, two more than he has ever competed in before Augusta, but there will be a notable break afterwards. The word is that McIlroy will marry his fiancée, Erica Stoll, in the weeks after the Masters.
For now his concentration is on the Highveld. McIlroy is there ostensibly to honour a promise to Ernie Els, whose autism charity benefits from the event, but, as the only member of the world’s top 45, it does give him a fine opportunity to win first time up for the first time in his career.
Not that McIlroy is necessarily a slow starter. For the last nine years he has started his year in Abu Dhabi, where, this decade alone, he has racked up an extraordinary six top threes. In his pre-tournament press conference, McIlroy sounded optimistic of hitting the fairways running.
“I spent a week in Dubai before Christmas testing a lot of equipment and hitting a lot of balls, he said. “I then had a week off before going back to Dubai and working solidly for 10 days until I came down here. I am in competitive mode but we also wanted to go into the bush for a few days and visit the reserve, which might have made me a little rusty - but I can shake that off. I am here to play well and get my confidence up.”
Two good performances could see him usurp Jason Day on the top of the rankings a week on Sunday. After a glorious finish to 2016, which featured him winning two events on the PGA Tour play-offs and so collecting the $10 million FedEx Cup bounty, McIlroy has the momentum. The one question mark, as he indicated, is his equipment.
With sponsors Nike having quit making clubs and balls, McIlroy is still in transition mode and despite having Callaway woods and irons in his bag, as well as couple of Titleist wedges, he revealed it could change on a “week-by-week” basis.
At the very least this week, McIlroy will be looking to fix up his weapons as he sets sights on the big-picture challenge of shooting himself back to the undisputed summit.
How Rory can regain his Major winning habit
1. Settle on the right clubs
McIlroy reveals he is taking it "week by week" to decide which clubs he uses after sponsors Nike pulled out of making equipment. But he needs to find the right mix as soon as possible. His career stalled for a year after his switch to Nike in 2013. Doubt is a weakness.
2. Carry on putting progress
The best thing McIlroy did last year was to admit he had serious failings on the greens and seek out the help of Southport guru Phil Kenyon. The advances have been obvious and if he can iron out his chipping deficiencies as well, then he truly will be the full package.
3. Stop the mistakes
McIlroy did not play poorly in the first seven months of 2016, but on so many occasions sloppiness - whether on the mental or technical side - cost him in the early rounds. Together with his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, he must improve his course management.
4. Regain the swagger
When McIlroy is bouncing he seems unstoppable; when his shoulders slump, he seems unstartable. Yes, good play and a good mood follow one another, but if he can grind his way through the tough moments then he always has the talent to prevail. McIlroy on a roll is the best sight in golf.
5. Avoid the controversies
A journalist advising a superstar to garner only positive headlines is always a curious notion, but there can be no doubt McIlroy could do with a straight-forward year in the interview rooms. Much better to be commended on your play than your honesty.