Thursday 18 December 2014

'Rory won't find his game on the range'

Harrington insists heat of battle best place to get back in groove

Karl MacGINTY

Published 22/01/2013 | 05:00

Rory McIlroy

RORY McILROY has 29 days before stepping back into the blinding, blistering spotlight – precious time in which to continue the process of finding a driver he can trust and a putter he can make work on fast greens or slow.

After the hype and unworldly optimism of last Monday week's official launch of McIlroy's new $20m-per-annum deal with Nike, reality bit hard as the Holywood star missed the cut in Abu Dhabi.

Every professional golfer will confirm that changing clubs is like rearing babies – teething troubles and sleepless nights are inevitable but it eventually works out in the end.

As world No 1 and golf's most exciting young player, McIlroy will be under intense pressure when he next tees it up for real in the first round of the Accenture Match Play World Championship of Golf on Wednesday, February 20.

Indeed, he'll probably find himself under a microscope until he wins with his new equipment.

Whether or not he lets this affect him is entirely up to McIlroy himself.

Pay any heed to the nay-sayers and McIlroy might as well have the menacing theme from 'Jaws' thrumming in his ears as he walks to the first tee in Tucson.

1 KEEP THE FAITH RORY, HARRINGTON URGES

OF all the advice offered by Tour colleagues in Abu Dhabi, the most prescient came from Padraig Harrington as he urged McIlroy to ignore the media maelstrom and keep faith with himself and the golf game that won him two Majors.

"Rory's wise enough to know this," said Dublin's three-time Major champion. "He cannot let anybody get in his head. It's not the only threat he faces right now, but it's the biggest one.

"I played a few holes in practice with him during the week and he was hitting it fine," added Harrington. "He just doesn't want anyone to get in his head or let them influence his thinking.

"That's the problem with being world No 1. The spotlight and the focus is always there. As much as he tries to keep the head down, you guys in the media are going to ask him the same leading questions ... and if you're asked a question often enough, it can get into your head."

2 LOWRY AND McILROY PERFECT STABLEMATES

IN DUBAI

THIS week in Dubai, McIlroy and swing coach Michael Bannon will start putting the lessons of Abu Dhabi to good effect, with technicians from 'the Oven', Nike's high-tech development facility in Fort Worth, Texas, on hand to offer their support.

Yet Shane Lowry, a stablemate of McIlroy's at Horizon Sports Management, also could play a key role in helping the 23-year-old get those new clubs into good working order.

Lowry is also in Dubai for a week's work on his game with his coach Neil Manchip at the Butch Harmon Academy and both Tour stars would do themselves a big favour by playing a round or two.

Few would enjoy this more than Lowry, who prefers to do his practice on the golf course. The Clara champion, 59th in the world after missing the weekend in Abu Dhabi, resumes his bid to force his way into the top 50 in time to make April's US Masters at next week's Omega Desert Classic.

Asked for the best way to get to know a new set of clubs, the wily Harrington replied: "Clearly, we are discussing Rory here and pretending not to. Okay, I believe there's no substitute for playing in low-key competition.

"There's nothing better than turning up and playing," he added.

"The ideal way is to go out there and gamble, so you've got something on the line but there's no people looking on, watching you.

"You need enough of an edge that you've got focus but not so much that you've got millions of people asking 'is that the club or is it the ball?' every time you hit a shot 15 feet past the flag.

"Ultimately, Rory's got to go out and play bounce games."

That hugely important process will intensify next week when McIlroy returns to his new home in Palm Beach Gardens and rejoins the hugely competitive fraternity of PGA Tour stars at The Bear's Club.

3 IT CAN TAKE THREE MONTHS TO GET A GRIP ON NEW CLUBS

OUR oil-rich hosts in Abu Dhabi reputedly paid $4m to bring both McIlroy and Tiger Woods to their tournament – but the information gleaned from this visit, albeit a short one, could be priceless to the Ulsterman.

Rust accumulated during the eight-week break since McIlroy won the DP World Championship played its part in making this a chastening experience for the world No 1 and his new sponsor.

Yet the opportunity to test his new equipment in the white heat of competition should bring the work that needs to be done into clear perspective, Harrington said.

Pointing out that he "hits the ball 30 yards shorter in practice on Tuesday than I do in the tournament," the Dubliner continued: "Tournament rounds always tell you what a club is doing – whether or not it's prone to a flyer; if it gives you this spin or that.

"All clubs are slightly different ... and you won't discover it on a launch monitor on the range. When it comes to testing, you've got to work these things in a wide array of different playing conditions. You'd want a period of time, two or three months, to really understand your equipment."

4 ABOVE ALL, NIKE MUST COME UP WITH DRIVER THAT WORKS

McIlroy will hope to dispel any questions about his clubs before the US Masters. Victory at the Match Play, successfully defending his Honda Classic title or a win either at Doral or the Shell Houston Open would silence all debate.

Though he stirred most headlines in Abu Dhabi last Friday by replacing his Nike Method putter with his old Scotty Cameron (to little effect), McIlroy's issue with the weight of his new putter's head should be resolved easily.

Problems with his new Covert driver are critical, as McIlroy's devastating power and accuracy off the tee underpins his world-beating feats.

His obvious frustration with the club during an extensive pre-round practice session on Friday and his inconsistency off the tee during play on both days could be measured in his exasperated parting words: "I have to find a driver."

McIlroy hit the sweet spot for Nike's marketing department during last week's official launch when he said the driver "blew me away. My ball speed was up ... I thought I hit it far before but maybe this is taking it to a new level."

Driver sales account for 50pc of revenue made by club manufacturers and the promise of added length persuades most punters to buy.

Yet on the rare occasions they managed to hit the same fairway, McIlroy's ball usually fell short of Tiger's – yet the Ulster youngster consistently had the measure of Woods with his old equipment. Restoring his ball flight to its former glory is the principal challenge to Nike's boffins.

5 STOCKTON'S PEP TALK CANNOT BE FORGOTTEN

IT was disconcerting early in Friday's second round to note McIlroy's hangdog demeanour as the tide turned against him, while Woods battled like a true Tiger and would have made the cut but for a two-stroke penalty incurred for an incorrect drop.

American short-game guru Dave Stockton (70) flicked a switch in McIlroy's head (and his career) when he had a quiet word last summer reminding him not to betray his emotions so easily; to remember he's living his boyhood dream and smile.

Ideally, McIlroy should carry a tape of their conversation last August, the week before the US PGA Championship at Kiawah.

For now, Harrington's advice to McIlroy is best: lock away the laptop for the next month or two; ignore all golf pundits and don't allow anyone get into his head.

Irish Independent

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