Pulling the strings and making the swings
As Rory McIlroy prepares for his first tournament of the year, James Corrigan analyses his game
THE CLUBS: A year ago, Rory McIlroy's visit to Abu Dhabi was all about his €94.1m deal with Nike, an event marked by fireworks and a specially erected stage more befitting a rock concert. What followed was not quite what those sultans of swoosh had marketed: the then-world No 1 missed the cut, and his season continued to go downhill from there.
McIlroy had no choice at that glitzy launch but to declare that he believed the switch to Nike would be seamless. But deep down he realised that he would encounter technical issues by making the change wholesale and not following Tiger Woods's lead in making the transition club by club. He was also aware which club would be the main culprit: if McIlroy drives well, he plays well and invariably scores well.
It took him at least five visits to the Nike laboratory to find the perfect spec, although he soon discovered the ball he was using was part of the dilemma. Nick Faldo had suggested as much in his early-year warnings. But then, at Akron in August, it clicked. He was handed a new ball and the numbers were remarkable.
"The driver I'm now using and the new Nike ball I'm hitting I think is the best driver and ball combination I've ever had," McIlroy says. "It's the first time in my career I've got past 180mph in ball speed. I feel comfortable. It means I won't have to spend any time over the Christmas and New Year break on any testing."
It is fair to say McIlroy is not planning switching equipment again any time soon.
Somewhere, in the midst of all the drum-banging that provided a soundtrack to his turbulent 2013, McIlroy lost his rhythm.
In the latter months of 2012 it had been as sweet a motion as the game had ever witnessed. So what happened? In truth, it was merely an old failing.
McIlroy's problems can always be brought back to his take-away. His hands go too far away and from there he becomes too upright in the follow-through. And as soon as McIlroy goes in search of the answer, it becomes worse. Every fix leads to another problem. Michael Bannon, his long-time coach, understands this better than even McIlroy himself and long ago came up with the answer.
For McIlroy it is all about simplicity and all about feel. "Whenever I'm hitting the ball well I write down the feelings I have with my swing, whether it was folding my right elbow halfway back or feeling like I was keeping my clubface looking at the ball," he said. "I actually feel the best I ever swung it was 2009. And I've started referring to the little black book I wrote it down in at the time. It's all about the takeaway for me and, if I can get that part of my game back, everything else will fall into place."
Bannon and McIlroy now know where to find the solution. That little black book has become their golfing bible.
It was his putting coach, Dave Stockton, who first told McIlroy that the fans did not need to look at the scoreboard to see how he was playing -- the scores were written there in his walk.
There is a bounce in his step when all is well, which all too quickly becomes a trudge when it goes awry. This was seen in its starkest light when he trudged off at the Honda Classic after completing 26 holes, first saying "I'm in a bad place mentally" before the PR men got involved, brought up his sore wisdom tooth and changed "mentally" to "dentally".
McIlroy will never do that again and although he will always be prone to trudge, he is trying to eradicate the negative thoughts which inevitably lead to negative performances. "I must stay positive," he says, before alluding to his "brain-dead" soliloquy after missing the cut at the Open.
"Sometimes I felt I was walking around in a daze. It's about focus, staying in the moment and in control. It's something I'm working on." As is his caddie, JP Fitzgerald. Course management is at the top of their agenda.
McIlroy accepts he did not play enough early last year, his brief appearance at Abu Dhabi was followed by a four-week break until a first-round defeat at the Accenture Match Play.
He has added Dubai and has also decided that he needs to play the week before each Major. That is good news for the Scottish Open in Aberdeen and the St Jude Classic in Memphis and good news for McIlroy.
He has learnt what suits him best.
McIlroy asked the Wozniackis for their daughter's hand in marriage and then got down on one knee in Sydney to propose with the New Year fireworks exploding all around.
How apt it was that the year began with pyrotechnics and ended with them, too. In Australia -- where he had also tasted victory in his final event of 2013, beating Adam Scott, the American golf writer's player of the year -- they lit up his future, a future he and his fans must pray is free of upheaval.
With one lawsuit with his former sponsor, Oakley, settled, only the other one involving his former management company, Horizon, remains. It is hoped it will be resolved by the summer, not least by Paul McGinley. As Horizon represents Graeme McDowell, McIlroy's natural golfing partner, Europe's Ryder Cup captain will not want any impending court action hanging over Gleneagles come September.
As soon as this matter is settled, so, too, will be McIlroy with a backroom staff devoted only to him. McIlroy will pull the strings and make the swings. May he do so with absolute assurance.