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'Tiger will find it hard to focus without fans' - McIlroy tees up alongside Woods and Koepka at Memorial

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In the swing: Rory McIlroy is ready for action at the Memorial Tournament. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

In the swing: Rory McIlroy is ready for action at the Memorial Tournament. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

AP

In the swing: Rory McIlroy is ready for action at the Memorial Tournament. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Rory McIlroy believes a visit from coach Michael Bannon can spark a return to form at this week's Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.

The world No 1 used a two-week break from competitive action to see life-long mentor Bannon for the first time since early February, with the former Holywood and Bangor GC pro flying out to stay with McIlroy in Florida.

Before the Tour was halted by the coronavirus pandemic in March, McIlroy had been on a run of seven consecutive top-five finishes but since the restart, he has failed to break the top ten in three outings.

While there have been flashes of brilliance, McIlroy says he can eliminate the errors that have, so far, cost him a chance at a Sunday challenge.

"I feel like my game is definitely better now after that week that I had with Michael," he said. "It was nice to spend some time with him and get some good work done to feel a bit better about my game and my swing."

As well as any mechanical issues, the Holywood star also reckons the ban on supporters, now extended to September, has been a barrier to rediscovering his top form.

"If anything I've realised that it's very hard for me to keep focus out here," he said.

"I feel like when there are fans and there's that energy, it's easy to get into that mindset that you need.

"But when you don't have that, I felt the first three weeks my mind was wandering a little bit. I think some of the mistakes I was making were because of that.

"Someone like Tiger hasn't experienced that yet, and maybe he's going to find it a little weird out there tomorrow with not having any fans, especially with the amount of crowds that he has to deal with all the time."

As a result of his sketchy form, McIlroy's top ranking is under threat this week. The game's top-five golfers are in the field and Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Webb Simpson all know they could end the tournament on top of the list.

McIlroy plays his opening two rounds alongside Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka and the trio get their first round under way this evening at 6.17pm (Irish time).

The other two Irishmen in the field are preparing for their second successive tournament at Muirfield Village as Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry both teed it up in last week's Workday Charity Open.

Lowry, however, will be without regular caddie Bo Martin again this week. Martin has not been on the Open champion's bag since the PGA Tour returned to action last month.

"Bo has had a bit of a strange few months," said Lowry. "He's just had his second kid two weeks ago and his dad died a couple of weeks before that after a long illness. He'll be back out for Memphis (WGC St Jude Invitational on July 30-August 2)."

The Offalyman would have been defending his Open title this week had the coronavirus pandemic not wreaked its havoc, but he still delights in last year's success.

"I'm just very grateful that I got to achieve something like that, that I actually have one of those on my mantelpiece and my name will be on that trophy forever," he smiled.

"I'm still very driven and very focused on achieving more things in my career, but no matter what happens, I'll always have that."

Gradual

In four starts since golf's return, Lowry has missed two cuts before showing gradual improvements with a T60th place and then T39th at last week's Workday event at Muirfield.

"I worked very hard in my time off, probably as hard as I've ever worked in my life," he said. "I'm still fairly optimistic where my game is at. I just need to cut out the mistakes this week and you never know what could happen."

Lowry begins his opening round at 6.06pm with Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose in the group ahead of McIlroy while McDowell has the final tee-time at 7.01pm alongside Dylan Frittelli.

The Memorial Tournament, Live, Sky Sports Golf, 7.30pm.

Irish Independent