Tuesday 17 July 2018

Competitive rustiness leaves Rory McIlroy short of his imperious best

His short-game struggles at Whistling Straits reflect a lack of match practice despite impressive return from injury

Rory McIlroy seems to need tournament play to get his game back into top shape. Photo: Chris Carlson
Rory McIlroy seems to need tournament play to get his game back into top shape. Photo: Chris Carlson

Dermot Gilleece

An interesting consequence of Rory McIlroy's ankle injury is the opportunity it has afforded us to observe his significant development, both as a player and as a person. The competitive change can be traced to this event 12 months ago, but the personal is a lot more recent.

After McIlroy had captured the 2012 PGA Championship by eight strokes at Kiawah Island, I remember David Feherty marvelling at the refreshing, boyish exuberance we had just witnessed. He claimed to have seen a very different McIlroy, however, while walking the back-nine at Valhalla last year, as an on-course reporter for CBS.

"On those fairways at Valhalla, I saw him change into a competitive monster," said Feherty with typical hyperbole, when we met on Friday. "From the baby-faced kid I had known up to that point, he suddenly had a fearsome look about him.

"Three strokes behind at the turn, you could see how badly he wanted to win, especially when his eagle putt found the hole at the 10th. He was giving off so much electricity that I was afraid to walk too close to him for fear of getting a shock. I can still picture him, hitting into that jet-black sky with lightning in the background, like something you'd see in a Harry Potter movie. He seemed to be transformed into a golfing wizard. It was amazing.

Read more: Irish golf on a high after McIlroy return and Lowry success

"That was when I first saw the aggression which came to characterise his subsequent performances, especially in the Ryder Cup. It seems strange saying that - as if you can win by eight without being aggressive. But the Valhalla title clearly meant a lot to him, the way he went about every shot."

By comparison, McIlroy looked subdued, even thoughtful, when a second-round 71 brought him to the halfway stage here at Whistling Straits on Friday. The fact that he had just completed a second successive day in the company of Jordan Spieth can't have helped, especially after the American's 67. His observation that "Jordan's going to be tough to beat" spoke volumes for his inner thoughts.

A more obvious change in his mood, however, was in evidence earlier in the week when he talked about five weeks of intensive rehabilitation from the ankle damage sustained on July 4. The recovery period had given him "a big sense of perspective, that even though it does mean so much to me - and so much to a few other people - in the big scheme of things, it's not life or death".

Then, with particular reference to this weekend's championship, he added: "Whatever happens, only a very small percentage of the population really care."

When was the last time you heard such down-to-earth honesty from a tournament golfer?

Meanwhile, his remarkable return from injury - there wasn't even the hint of a limp after 36 holes over difficult terrain - came as no surprise to Feherty, who was, again, suitably effusive on the matter.

Read more: Rory digs deep in bid to defend his number one spot

"Though the nature of the sprain was potentially a season-ending injury, he's 26 years old, with the shape of a Greek god," he said. "In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Rory were to challenge for the title this weekend. Apart from the benefits of modern medicine, his well-being reflects the determination and inner drive which was so in evidence at Valhalla."

And still it seems to have come as a surprise to McIlroy that the one key golfing area that he couldn't take care of during his time of rehabilitation was around the greens.

"If I can just tidy up the short game a bit, I can get right back into it," he acknowledged. And his statistics for the opening two rounds told a sorry tale. With average drives of 318 yards and 69.4 per cent of greens hit in regulation, he was ranked 10th overall in shots gained from tee to green. But putting rounds of 32 and 28 left him a lowly 128th in the ranking. Which shouldn't surprise us, given everything he's been through.

Yet students of golfing history can point to Ben Hogan and his remarkable 1953 season when, in his first 72-hole event of the year, he broke the US Masters aggregate by five strokes, carding rounds of 70, 69, 66 and 69 for an aggregate of 274. That's pretty good scoring in any era. And when winning the US Open in June of that year, he had rounds of 67, 72, 73 and 71 for 283.

It could be argued that greens complexes are more difficult these days and surfaces a lot slicker. The more likely explanation, however, is that Hogan didn't seem to need tournament play to get his game into top shape.

Read more: History turning against Tiger

McIlroy, on the other hand, gave the impression on Friday that much work remained to be done in that area. He talked of short-game practice while wearing a protective boot, being aimed essentially at "trying to keep some sort of feel in my hands", and that there was no real substitute for tournament rounds on the road back to supremacy.

But our Rory has always been a fast learner. And on yesterday's evidence, the wait may be a lot shorter than we might have imagined.

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