Karl MacGinty: McIlroy is no David Duval
Maturing Rory has six tournaments to arrest slump and build optimism for next season
SOME might call it bravado or suggest Rory McIlroy simply was whistling past the graveyard – yet a little gallows humour indicated how much tougher and clear-thinking the Holywood native has become.
Friday the 13th had been another nightmare day in a season of horrors as McIlroy fell to last place in the BMW Championship on 13-over. His worst 36-hole performance against par in seven years as a professional killed his chances of making the 30-man field at this week's FedEx Cup climax, the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
McIlroy simply shrugged of his frustration and came up with a couple of wise cracks.
"Unfortunate there's no cut this week," he joked, raising a laugh from the media. It was a far cry from other angst-ridden post-mortems in 2013.
Like at the Honda Classic last March when McIlroy, plainly crushed by his own incompetence (and supposedly suffering from wisdom tooth pain), didn't even make it to halfway on Friday. Or McIlroy's hopeless despair following his calamitous first-round 79 at the British Open, when he putted into a bunker at Muirfield's 15th green.
Tellingly, he described that effort as "brain-dead ... seriously, I've been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months."
As his 2013 PGA Tour campaign came to a conclusion on Sunday, McIlroy's slump still appeared to defy logic or explanation – but there was no wailing or gnashing of teeth from the 24-year-old in Chicago. Maybe he has learned not to wear his heart on his sleeve. If any uncertainty lurked within, it was well concealed.
Unlike at Muirfield, where he lifted the lid on his turmoil by saying: "I wish I could stand up here and tell you guys what's wrong or what I need to do to make it right but I really can't fathom it at the minute... I feel like I've got the shots, it's just a matter of going through the right thought process to hit them ... it's nothing to do with technique. It's all mental ... sometimes I feel like I'm walking around out there and I'm unconscious."
Apart from a tie for eighth on his title defence at last month's US PGA, McIlroy still confounds with his inconsistency – but there still seems to be a subtle change in Rory's story.
As ever, he maintained on Friday he had no need to consult a sports psychologist, only this time McIlroy's words sounded more convincing.
"I don't think it's anything to do with that," he insisted.
"If I'm going to miss shots, I need to miss them in the right place and give myself a chance to get up-and-down. If I have a wedge in my hand, I just need to sharpen up that end of the game ... it's nothing mental."
As he admitted frustration at the failure of hard work on the range to yield results and spoke of the need for patience, McIlroy gave the distinct impression he has a clear picture of where he's going and how to get there.
The problem is neither with McIlroy's head nor his heart! He's no David Duval. Instead, the Ulsterman's failure to achieve anything close to his true potential in 18 of 19 tournaments this year (his tie for second at April's Texas Open being the solitary exception) has more earthy origins.
Having completed the ever-exciting yet sometimes stressful journey to golf's summit in 2012, McIlroy inevitably needed a lengthy winter break ... at precisely the time when, if Tiger is to be believed, that change of ball and equipment demanded hugely intensive off-course work.
He easily embraced success and the responsibility it brings, as McIlroy showed by capably handling Nike's extravagant launch of their new contract in Abu Dhabi and by throwing his full weight behind Paul McGinley's bid to become Ryder Cup captain.
Sadly, however, McIlroy was ill prepared for the fresh challenges he would meet on the course and, after failing to bolster his early-season playing schedule, he fell into a dizzying spiral in which, one suspects, it soon became difficult to draw a precise line between equipment and swing issues.
Suddenly, a game which had been so easy in 2012, appeared a lot more confusing and complex.
As the summer evolved, McIlroy clearly invested a lot of effort in his ailing long game, especially his driver, the rock upon which his success had been built.
Yet as he played catch-up on the range, his wedge play and short game suffered. Can there be any other explanation why a player of McIlroy's gift would perform as ineptly out of greenside bunkers and rough as he has recently?
For example, it's remarkable to think that the world No 4 would need five strokes to get up-and-down from the left rough, 15 yards from the cup, as McIlroy did last Thursday as he recorded a cataclysmic seven at the 360-yard first at Conway Farms.
Over the next few weeks 'off', McIlroy intends, as Ben Hogan might say, to continue digging in the dirt for the cure to his recent ills, so he can go into his final six tournaments of 2013 with some hope of building momentum for the new year.
With his FedEx Cup fate already determined, he scooted around Conway Farms in little more than two and a half hours on Saturday and Sunday, posting back-to-back sub-70 rounds for the first time this year with a brace of 68s.
It would take a miracle for McIlroy to come from 54th place to once again win Europe's Race to Dubai, but restoring full faith and confidence in his game is a far greater prize.