Rory McIlroy insists his current “slump” is nothing compared to last year’s early season struggles and reckons his game is close to clicking into place in time to challenge for a third major win in next week’s US Open at Merion.
But even if it takes longer than that and his 2013 frustration continues for another while, he’s licking his lips at the prospect of defending his US PGA title at Oak Hill after playing the New York course on Monday.
That wasn’t just because he loved the classic, tree-lined track but because he played so well, cruising to a three under 67 that included holing out from 50 yards for an eagle two at the 323-yard 14th.
“Today it was all right,” McIlroy joked, when asked about the state of his game. “It’s been a little bit of a frustrating year.
“It seems like every time that I’ve got a bit of momentum, I take two steps forward and
then take one step back. But I’m getting there.”
While he’s putting poorly - “Dave Stockton was at Memorial for a couple of days, trying to get me to hole some more putts” - McIlroy sees no real comparison between this season and last year when he missed his fourth cut from five starts in the US Open at Olympic Club and did not snap out of his lethargy until the week before the US PGA at Kiawah Island.
“This is different,” McIlroy said. “I’m actually playing much better. I’m in a better place with my golf swing and my game. I wasn’t showing any real signs of promise for a couple of months last year, where this year, there are signs.
“I’m definitely not too far away, whereas last year at this point, I feel like I didn’t know if I would ever play good again. But it’s just the way golf is.
“I’m feeling pretty good about my game, and I think when this all clicks into place one week, I should be off and running.”
That’s what happened last year, when a fifth place finish in the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron lit the touch paper. A week later he was unstoppable at Kiawah Island, where he broke the record for largest margin of victory in the US PGA.
A 72nd hole birdie giving him his second eight-stroke major win, breaking the tournament record set by Jack Nicklaus in 1980, at Oak Hill to be precise.
“I love golf courses like this, big, mature trees, tree-lined fairways,” McIlroy said. “It’s a typical, old style golf course, but it’s still… timeless. It was obviously a fantastic golf course 50, 60 years ago, and it’s a fantastic golf course now.
“It’s not overly long by today’s standards but you have to drive the ball very well. It gives you opportunities to score, but you’ve got some holes coming in that are very tough.”
McIlroy said the course could surrender its lowest score in a major event, breaking the six-under total for 72 holes fired by Jack Nicklaus when he won the 1980 PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
“I think if the course played the way it is now, I would see Jack Nicklaus’ total of six-under being broken,” McIlroy said. “Something somewhere between four and eight under par.
“If it plays firm and it plays fast and the rough is thick, something similar, you have some chances out there.
“The real challenge here is taking your opportunities when they come along and limiting the damage if you do hit it in the trees or the rough.”
Still ranked second in the world, McIlroy looks like a shadow of the player who won five times last year en route to Player of the Year honours on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour.
Winless in 11 starts since he signed that mega deal with Nike, he’s missed two cuts, walked off the course after just a round and a half in his Honda Classic defence and contended just twice.
He refused to blame his club switch, insisting: “The ball striking has not really been an issue this year. I’ve actually hit the ball pretty well from tee to green, and I’ve given myself a lot of opportunities.
“If I keep hitting the ball the way I know I can and hole putts, I’ll hopefully be in the winner’s circle.”
Next week’s US Open looks to have come to soon but McIlroy is not ruling himself out at Merion, where he began a two-day visit yesterday.
He said: “I’m hoping that my sort of trend in the US Open continues, because I’ve gone missed cut, win, missed cut, so hopefully I can win again.”
McIlroy tweeted from Merion after his first practice round on Tuesday:
Merion… What a golf course! Plenty of birdie chances mixed with plenty of potential disaster! Going to be an exciting US Open!
Sounds a lot like McIlroy season so far - lots of ordinary golf sprinkled with moments of sheer brilliance.