Rory McIlroy has found “the one.”
No, not the love of his life - that job’s been filled - but a driver he can finally trust.
Speaking at fast and fiery Muirfield, where he played practice rounds last Monday and Tuesday before heading out for another 18 holes in breezy sunshine on Sunday, the world No 2 said: “I went over to London after the Irish Open, tried a few drivers with different settings and as soon I hit it I said, ‘This is the one.’ It feels great.”
The 24-year old’s multi-million dollar move to Nike Golf in January meant saying goodbye to the biggest weapon in his armoury, his Titleist driver.
As a result, he’s struggled hugely of the tee this year, freely admitting that his lack of confidence in his new Nike Covert has been at the root of his 2013 slump.
After finding a crack in the driver he used during his closing six-over-par 76 in the US Open at Merion four weeks ago, he had little luck with a new model in the Irish Open, where he missed the cut.
He immediately started testing new drivers over the weekend at Carton House and now reckons he’s finally found the perfect club. But whether it helps him at a rock-hard Muirfield, where players will play few drivers on a fast-running course surrounded by deep rough, remains to be seen.
He shot a four over 75 playing just one ball in practice yesterday as Tiger Woods jetted in to Scotland, declared his elbow injury to be “fine” and the hit only irons and three woods off the tee in a nine-hole practice round on a course burnt golden brown by the recent heatwave.
“It’s going to be a great test,” McIlroy said. “It’s fast and firm and there was a decent wind today. I hit one ball because I wanted to try to get myself in the competitive mode. The thing is, if you hit it in the rough here, you’re chipping out.
“I played okay, but dropped five shots in three holes, but four-over is not the worse score around here. I really like this course and feel I can play well around here.”
Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington might have missed the cut in the Scottish Open but it hasn’t been a lost weekend for the two-time Open champion, who played 14 holes on Saturday and 18 on Sunday.
“Muirfield certainly is fairly typical of any of the Major courses, which seem especially difficult in practice rounds, but actually works out okay when the tournament actually starts,” Harrington said. “Every time you miss a fairway, for example, you feel like you’re in a world of trouble.”
Harrington is not surprised that Muirfield has such a long list of classic Open champions.
“Well, this is a classic golf course. It suits all styles of play. There may not be a lot of drivers but it still plays into the hands of the long-hitters because lay-up shots will leave good long distances to go.
“There’d certainly be an advantage to hitting higher-trajectory shots with some spin into these greens, especially the par threes.”
Harrington missed out on a place in the play-off for the 2002 Open Championship by a single stroke when he bogeyed the 72nd hole trying to force a birdie.
“That was the best ball-striking week of my career, bar none. In fact, I hit the ball so well, I regretted not being more aggressive in my approach. I hit so many shots right on my target of 15 feet, I began to wonder what might have happened if I’d gone directly at the hole.”
What cost Harrington in 2002 was not his bogey at the last but his poor putting that week. Yet he does not believe that it is possible to win a major putting poorly.
“I didn’t win, did I?.” he said with a shrug. “Hitting a high percentage of fairways is going to be important here but you’re still going to have to putt well this week.”
He reckons the four par threes are likely to be the key, adding: “They’re long and difficult, among the toughest holes on the course. Believe me, I’d happily play them in even-par this week, whether that’d be 16 threes or eight twos and eight fours, I don’t mind.
“The greens are hard and well defended by bunkers and there’s a huge amount of sand in them, which means the ball is more likely to come to rest in awkward lies. Into the wind, it may be better to hit a low shot in and try and bounce the ball up onto the putting surface.
“There’s a new tee at 13, stretching it from 160 yards to 193 yards. I remember hitting 7-iron in there in 2002 but on Saturday it was a 4-iron … but all four par threes have the potential to be big holes at this Open.”
As for Woods, the world No 1 landed in Scotland at 8am and by 12.20 he was on the first tee with Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.
The three-time Open winner played poorly in the US Open and then pulled out of the AT&T National three weeks ago because of an elbow strain.
Yet he showed no ill effects as he played the front nine in brilliant sunshine on Sunday, hitting only irons or a fairway wood off the tee on the longer holes.
“It’s fine. It feels good,” Woods said of his elbow injury after hitting a four-iron downwind 285 yards on the eighth. ” … I took a couple weeks off and that’s why I didn’t play and I started practicing last week. It felt fine.
“That’s one of the reasons I let it heal, so I could go right back at it.”
When the Open was last played at Muirfield in 2002, Woods was going for the third leg of the Grand Slam but was blown off course during a third round storm, carding an 81 that still ranks as the highest round of his professional career.
As USA Today’s Steve DiMeglio reported, memories of that day have not faded with time:
“As he walked down the narrow par-5 fifth on Sunday, he brought up the miserable day without prompting.
“I hit driver, 2-iron, 2-iron to this hole,” said Woods, who on this day needed just two 5-woods to reach the green in two on a bright, calm Sunday. “I barely made the fairway with my tee shot. I made par, though.
” … You’re kind of hoping for this when you come over here. It’s obviously playing a lot quicker than it did in ‘02. These fairways have some fire to them. The greens aren’t up to speed but I’m sure they will get there. It’s been dry over here. This place is firm. We’re hitting the ball a long ways downwind.”