Luke Donald said it best: “Talent can only take you so far.”
The world No 1 tees it up alongside Rory McIlroy in the Memorial Tourament today with the Ulsterman aware that perspiration will trump inspiration more often than not.
Having lost his world No 1 ranking to Donald at Wentworth last week, missing the cut for the second week running as the Englishman successfully defended the BMW PGA title, McIlroy reckons he still has time to “knuckle down” and turn things around before his US Open defence in two weeks.
“I just want to get some competitive rounds in,” McIlroy said in Dublin, Ohio. “I’m working on a few things, and I feel trying to put them into competition will be the best way for me to prepare going into the U.S. Open.”
He admits he’s taken his eye off the ball and if he needs reminding about the best path forward, he need only look at this playing partner and Ryder Cup team mate at Muirfield Village this week.
Always a supremely talented ball-striker, Donald has overcome his own shortcomings to reach the summit of the game. He still lacks the major McIlroy won so spectaculary at Congressional last year. Yet he has the experience to know what his young rival is going through right now:
“I remember when I was 23 and had an attractive girlfriend, I would take my eye off the ball sometimes, as well. You can’t blame the kid. But he’s obviously realised that, and it looks like he’s trying to focus on practicing a little bit harder and getting back to what he does.
“It’s a tough game, this game. Certainly for me, from a personal standpoint, if I don’t put the work in, I’m not going to get the results. I guess talent can only take you so far, and Rory sounds like he’s kind of got to that point where everything has been pretty easy up until this point, and he’s come into a little bit of a bad run of form, which this game does that to you.
“It’s a fickle game, and it’s tough. You’ve just got to work through it.”
McIlroy was annoyed with himself for letting his game slide following his rise to world No 1 at the Honda Classic in March. Many words have been written about his blossoming romance with Caroline Wozniacki but the problem is more one of time management than than priorities.
He said at the start of the year that he doesn’t want to play three tournament in a row again. But having missed two successive cuts for the first time since April 2010, he’s added next week’s FedEx St Jude Classic to his schedule and will be playing his fourth event on the trot when he defends the US Open.
As he said at Muirfield Village on Wednesday:
“It’s not nice missing cuts, and it’s something that I’ve not really been used to over the past couple of years. I want to get my game in good shape going into Olympic. I’d love to be able to get it in good shape after this week and come out of this week after working hard and say, you know what, I’ve really made progress this week, let’s try and make a little bit more next week in Memphis and feel really good and ready for the U.S. Open.”
Put simply, McIlroy lost confidence:
“Everyone goes through this, where they just don’t feel that comfortable with their game. It’s funny because I felt really good the week at Quail Hollow, got into a playoff there. The Players I felt okay. Everyone knows it’s not one of my favourite venues of the year, but I tried my best, and it just didn’t happen. I felt like my game was in good shape then. And then I took the week off and I came back to Wentworth and felt like it was okay, but once I got into the competitive rounds, I just started to doubt myself a little bit. I think that just comes with I just needed to hit some more balls and practice and really try and groove in the feelings that I’m trying to create.
“It was good to have Michael with me last week, and it’s good to have him with me here. We’ve done some good work, identified a few things in my swing that we just need to look at, and that’s what I’m working on.
“I practiced for like six hours yesterday, and I’m going to practice after this. I’m going to get some lunch and go out on the range after this and really just try and figure this out. But it’s feeling better day by day, and it felt a little better the Saturday morning at Wentworth, felt a little better yesterday. I saw some encouraging signs out there in the pro‑am. I hit some good shots, so it’s getting there.
“But you know, when you’ve gone on a run where you’ve hardly finished outside the top 5 and then all of a sudden two missed cuts, it’s more of a shock than anything else, just a little bit surprising, and it’s something I haven’t really had to deal with in a while, and I just have to knuckle down and figure it out and get back to the way I was at the start of the year.
The truth is not that he was seeing too much of Wozniacki but not enough of coach Michael Bannon since he acquired a US base this season:
“Whenever I worked with him back home, we’d work for three or four mornings a week but for three or four hours, and that’s something we really haven’t had this year, to be honest. I was always used to seeing him‑‑ we’d always have a practice session and we’d go inside and we’d look at my swing and just look at the lines and make sure everything is okay. I said to him that I felt like I haven’t really seen my swing that much this year.
“So we sat in his hotel room last night and went through a few swings from the past, from recent weeks, from yesterday, and just going through what’s different and what needs to be corrected.
“Yeah, so you know, as I said at the start, we’ve identified what it is, and it’s just a matter of putting in the time on the range and trying to tease it back into the positions that I want it to be.”
All will be forgotten if McIlroy contends again at Jack’s place this week. But it’s also clear that he’s becoming increasingly pressurised by the interest in his every move, on and off the course.
On the media frenzy following his club-throwing incident at Wentworth, he said:
“It’s all about finding that balance between giving you guys what you want to hear and also keeping a little bit for yourself. But I’ve always said, I try to be as open as I possibly can. I feel like I am, and hopefully you guys appreciate that.
“But yeah, there’s some things you don’t like to talk about or things that you like to keep to yourself. But when it comes to golf and my golf game and everything that goes on inside the ropes, I’m more than happy to talk about it.
“It’s hard, like last week I threw my 6‑iron on the 12th hole, and I didn’t think it was that big a deal and then I wake up the next morning and it’s all over the papers in the UK, and I’m just like, Oh, my God. It’s just one of those things, and it’s something I’m going to have to deal with and learn how to do…
McIlroy is being forced to learn quickly this year as demands increase:
“This year has been a big learning curve for me because I’m still trying to find a balance between being a top‑class golfer and handling media commitments, sponsors’ commitments, trying to have a life outside of all that, just trying to balance everything.
“It’s something that it’s hard to do all of them all at the same time. Yeah, it’s something that I’m still figuring out how to do. But I’ve got a good team around me, and we’re trying to figure that out at the minute.”