McIlroy plays mind games in guru session
RORY McILROY crossed an interesting threshold yesterday when he was accompanied by Dr Bob Rotella on the front nine at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, venue for this week's Honda Classic.
Arguably the most gifted young player in golf, McIlroy hopes Rotella, the game's foremost mind guru, can help him convert raw talent into tournament victories.
McIlroy has produced a string of impressive performances in the 13 months since his breakthrough win at last year's Dubai Desert Classic, including eight top-five finishes in his last 12 competitive outings.
Yet, for all the youngster's success and his continuing status as Ireland's top player at No 9 in the world rankings issued yesterday, that victory in Dubai remains his solitary success on Tour.
Like Padraig Harrington, who credits two Bobs (Rotella and Scottish swing coach Torrance) for helping him become a three-time Major champion, McIlroy is determined to leave no avenue unexplored in the pursuit of excellence.
For clear evidence of the cruel tricks the mind can play on Sunday afternoon at a golf tournament, McIlroy need only look as far back as Rickie Fowler's fateful decision to lay-up at the par-5 15th at TPC Scottsdale as last weekend's Waste Management Phoenix Open came to a climax.
At 21, Fowler is American golf's most exciting prospect. As he stood on that fairway at 15, just one shot shy of Hunter Mahan's tournament lead, there seemed to be only one option for a young player with such striking tiger-stripes -- go for it!
Yet Fowler stunned many onlookers by taking the conservative option, admitting later that the decision had been "a little bit out of character". So why didn't he take on that 230-yard shot?
"I was a little farther out than I'd have liked to have been to go for it," said Fowler, who thought he'd be better served by laying up to 80 yards and going for birdie from there -- especially since he fancied his chances of picking up further shots on 16 and 17.
"I'd played 16 well all week and had a look at birdie there. With 17 being a short hole, there's a birdie chance there as well," he explained. "So I felt that instead of bringing trouble (water) into play, I took the safe route, which a lot of times, I don't play."
Yet Fowler hit that "easy wedge shot" from 80 yards "just a little soft" and had to settle for par at a hole which playing companions Camilo Villegas and Mark Calcavecchia both birdied after going for the green in two from further back.
Asked if he'd been caught in between his hybrid and 3-wood, Fowler went on: "I carry two hybrids. So it was actually going to be either a smooth 4-iron or kind of just a soft 20-degree hybrid.
"I kind of told myself that I didn't really want to go for it unless I had about a 5-iron, which I'd have felt more comfortable hitting into that front pin. It's not very wide," added the young Californian, admitting that his thoughts had been clouded by the prospect of hitting his ball in the water or having a difficult up-and-down if he missed the green right or left.
"So I felt giving myself that wedge from the middle of the fairway was my best chance at making an easy birdie."
Fortune might not always favour the brave in golf but too much thought is invariably a recipe for disaster. For a player at Fowler's level, to have so many alarm-bells ringing in his head must be desperately disconcerting.
Harrington explains that the greatest gift Rotella has given him is the ability to put a hyper-active mind into neutral. To clearly see the right shot (nothing else) and simply hit it -- the outstanding example being his 5-wood into 17 at Royal Birkdale for that victory-clinching eagle at the 2008 Open. So Mahan, courtesy of two splendid rounds of 65 at the weekend and an inspired display with his putter down the stretch, would clinch his second PGA Tour victory and his first since 2007. Fowler, who remained a stroke back after failing to make birdie at 16 or 17, was left to ponder a missed opportunity and what might have been.
Already familiar with Rotella's teachings through books like 'Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect' (which is Harrington's 'bible'), McIlroy hopes the psychologist can help him develop an effective pre-shot routine to reinforce the putting technique he's learned from Dr Paul Hurrion.
The youngster also went into yesterday's first session especially eager to hear any advice the doctor might have on sharpening-up his mental approach on Sunday at tournaments.
While teenager Ryo Ishikawa has drawn confidence from his seven victories on the Japan Tour, winning has yet to become a habit for McIlroy on the tougher European and US circuits. So a tip or two from Rotella certainly would not go amiss.
"It's not that I think anything is wrong with me or my game," McIlroy said. "I just think that he can help me in some way and it's definitely not going to hurt.
"I feel as if my putting can get better and I think he can point me in the right direction with pre-shot routine, how to think leading up to hitting the putt. Stuff like that. I've read all of his books over the years and find what he says really interesting and appealing.
"I think this could make a couple of shots' difference in tournaments and hopefully turn my top-threes and top-fives into wins. If that happens, it'll be a very worthwhile exercise. This is about getting experience and thinking about things at the right time -- not hitting it longer or anything like that."
McIlroy hopes he will be untroubled on his return to the Honda Classic this week by the back strain which hampered his defence of the Dubai Desert Classic title and may also have undermined his efforts in the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship.
Tied 13th with Sergio Garcia, among others, on his Honda debut last year, McIlroy likes Palm Beach Gardens, though not as much as Harrington, who won here on his first appearance in 2005 and finished inside the top-20 on two subsequent visits.
Yet this is still very early in the season for the Dubliner, who's played just 125 holes of competitive golf in 2010 and, one suspects, might still need a little help from Rotella in accepting that his renowned short game is not quite as perfect as before in the new V-grooves era.
That Harrington would even consider putting the hugely controversial Ping Eye-2 wedge in his bag at Riviera last month is an indication of just how much the groove change impacted on him mentally.
Yes, the Ping Eye-2 is technically legal (Mahan even carried one last weekend) but the Dubliner's short game, described by his Match Play conqueror Jeev Milkha Singh as world class last week, should have elevated Harrington well above such venial temptation.
Though his placing at No 49 in yesterday's world rankings ensures Graeme McDowell of his place in next week's CA World Championship of Golf at Doral, the Portrush man is also under pressure to produce a top-flight performance on a sponsor's invite to the Honda Classic.
On the opposite side of the planet, Darren Clarke, Peter Lawrie and Gary Murphy tee it up in the Malaysian Open at Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club.
Yet most attention will be on Florida and McIlroy's bid to win golf's mind-games when it really matters -- on the back nine next Sunday.