Graeme McDowell can’t quite put his finger on exactly what’s helped Rory McIlroy make the seemingly effortless move to the top of the world rankings.
The Northern Ireland pair have been friends since McIlroy joined the professional ranks five years ago. And while McDowell believes his friend’s elevation to number one was inevitable, he believes it’s a coming together of multiple factors rather than one sole cause.
“I didn’t see him much at the end of last year but I felt something tangible after Lake Malaren,” McDowell said after a practice round with McIlroy at a windy TPC Blue Monster on Wednesday. “It felt like the tunnel vision really got turned on for him and I don’t know whether that’s Caroline [Wozniacki] influencing him regarding her work ethic and her being No 1 then. I don’t know whether that’s driven him at all.
“It seems his work ethic - not that he was ever lazy - has improved. He is now a very hard worker, especially off the course with gym routines, and his game has matured immensely.”
McDowell said on Sunday that McIlroy had found the missing link in his game - a consistent putter. But there’s more than that to his recent success.
“The way he won on Sunday was very un-Rory like,” McDowell said. “He didn’t decimate the golf course with length and ball striking. He actually chipped and putted his way to victory, which is not what we expect from him but it proves how much his game has matured. It’s great. I’m obviously very excited for him. It’s huge for huge for Irish golf and long may it continue.”
McIlroy’s victory in the Lake Malaren Shanghai Masters last October came in his first event as a Horizon Sports Management player.
And while McDowell does not know if leaving Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable was a catalyst for McIlroy’s remarkable recent run of consistent play - three wins and four top-five finishes from his last eight starts as a Horizon player - he’s not ruling it out.
“It’s just narrowed his focus down a little bit and he doesn’t have to worry about any peripheral management stuff going on,” McDowell said. “He’s in a small stable now where everyone is very focussed on what he is doing and I think he maybe enjoys that. It’s tough to measure how much of a difference that move has made.”
McDowell had a torrid 2011 season but he feels energised again this year and positive about his game after top 10 finishes in two of his first three strokeplay starts.
Tied for third in Abu Dhabi and ninth behind McIlroy in the Honda Classic, the 32-year old from Portrush was also tied 59th in Qatar and a first round loser in the Accenture Match Play.
He’s targeting another raft of crucial Ryder Cup and world ranking points again this week and hopes that McIlroy’s elevation to global megastar will have a positive effect on his own game.
“He’s got all his ducks in a row and it’s great. And it certainly helps me just by letting me stripstream him under the radar. Just to be able to go and practice rounds with the world’s number one golfer is nice. It shows you what you have got to do.
“I haven’t played much golf this year but with two top 10s in four events, I’m off to a nice start. I don’t think there is much advice I can give Rory. He is a smart young man and he’s been groomed for stardom and perhaps it was a little unexpected for me to win my first major in 2010. He expects this of himself and he’s prepared for it. He knows what to do.
“I was solid week last week and hopefully there will be more of the same this week. This is a very similar week to Honda in that you have to hit it in the fairway, it’s windy, you’ve got to control your ball flight. It’s a golf course I’ve got it round in the past too.
“I’m fresh and I don’t have any thoughts about that stuff from 2010 any more. My expectations are back where they should be. Yes, I’m confident and yes, I’ve played well but I’ve got my expectations in check and I’m a lot more patient on the golf course.
“I’m feeling good, really good. The old radar blockers are back on with Rory playing so well and I can just let him do what he’s doing and I can do what I’m doing. I’m so excited for him.”
McIlroy seemed pleased with his game after his practice round with McDowell and unperturbed by winds that gusted over 25 mph.
“The wind wasn’t too bad,” he said. “It was playable. Me and G-mac played a match on the back nine there and we were both under par. So it’s still playable.”
That said, McIlroy confessed that he was tired after two huge weeks that saw him reach the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play before winning last week.
“I am a little tired,” he said. “I was up early doing some stuff and I’ll go and have a lie down now and get in the gym later.”
And with that he was off to sign dozens of autographs.
McDowell signed several too and posed for photographs with fans but within two minutes he could slip away under the ropes and the radar.
As for Darren Clarke, the Open champion spent long hours on the putting green searching for a solution to his putting headaches with coach Phil Kenyon.
Grouped with YE Yang and Vijay Singh, the 43-year old was in disconsolate mood after missing the cut in last week’s Honda Classic.
“I am enveloped by a feeling of uselessness,” he said dramatically in Palm Beach. “You can’t take 33 and 34 putts and compete.”