McIlroy and McDowell look to regain lost ground

Rory McIlroy practices in Atlanta

Getting back what you've lost isn't always easy but Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell were short on regrets and bullish about their chances of returning to the top — starting this week.

McIlroy can win the $10m FedEx Cup playoffs if he win the Tour Championship in Atlanta this week and results go his way now that world No 1 Jason Day and No 3 Jordan Spieth have stolen his thunder. It's a big "if" when it comes to the big cheque, which he admits is no motivation to him whatsoever. But watching Day and Spieth lord it over him all summer, that's certainly been hard to take.

“It hasn’t been the season I hoped for,” he admitted. “It wont’ be a year that I look back on at the end of my career. It was a learning curve but not one with great success.”

To read SI's Gary Van Sickle's take, the 2015 season has given McIlroy food for thought.

"Interesting, disappointing and unfulfilling were words he used to try to describe it. Not winning a major may not seem that difficult to deal with, but when you’ve already won four and were expecting to add to that total by one or more and you didn’t, that was a comedown. Plus, he had to sit out the British Open at St. Andrews, an epochal event.
“Missing arguably the biggest tournament that we have,” he said with a shake of the head. “The Open at St. Andrews only comes around once every five years. Having to sit that one out, that was one of the disappointing moments.”

If he was looking for new ways to stay motivated and keep his game fresh, watching Spieth win two majors and come close to victory in the other two was a wake up call for McIlroy. Watching how Spieth putted, especially at the Masters, was another revelation.

Then came Day's scintillating finish to the year, starting with the Open, where McIlroy was an uneasy television viewer having done his ankle in a kickabout with pals he says he needs to keep some sort of handle on normal life.

As for McDowell, it was a annus horribilis that led to him failing to make the FedEx Cup playoffs and a somewhat rapid fall from 15th to 67th in the world. 

Whether he took his eye off the ball, lost a little hunger, saw the game leave him behind in some respects or simply failed to practice as much as he once did, McDowell has been enjoying life as a father and a married man a lot more than his golf.

As the tees it up in the Porsche European Open in deepest Bavaria this week, the Portrush man wants to revive his season and open his Ryder Cup account with a decent performance in his first event since he spectacularly missed the cut in the US PGA more than five weeks ago.

“I’ve always love coming back to Germany and the European Open is a prestigious event," McDowell said. "There are some great names on the trophy. I’m very happy to be here and I’m looking to resurrect my season, and this week is as important for me as any of the past few months have been.

“It’s been a very average year. Missing the (Fed-Ex Cup) play-offs has given me chance to hit the reset button. I wanted to play a bit better at Firestone into Whistling, but I felt under pressure, playing with a gun to my head and needing it too much.

"I took some time off and hit the reset button, so I’m starting my 2016 campaign this week and my Ryder Cup campaign. I want to drive myself forward and get myself where I feel I belong.

"Golf is a tough game sometimes and I has felt more difficult this year for me than it has in the past. But it makes you appreciate the good times in the past and I’m looking forward to good times ahead.”

Looking at where Day, McIlroy and Spieth are right now is not something McDowell would be advised to do. He's proved himself to be a fighter umpteen times and once he gets back to strengthening his strengths — his driving accuracy and his putting in particular — he'll be back.

McIlroy only went away, briefly, because of injury. And given his talent, his intelligence and his work ethic, it was easy to sense in his words at East Lake that the challenge of the Big Three is something that will keep him amused rather than ruin his career.

The 26-year-old just wants to get back to winning ways and it's not the money that's motivating him.

 Graeme McDowell.  Picture/ Getty Images

Graeme McDowell.  Picture/ Getty Images

That stopped being a factor the moment he signed for Nike and one can only wonder what kid of mega financial or business goals get his juices flowing.

"Luckily, that amount of money doesn't sort of mean much to me anymore," McIlroy said of the $10m bonus awarded to the FedExCup winner.

"It will go in the bank and if I want to buy something nice, I will. I mean, like, it's nice to think that you could win $10m this week, but that's not what excites me.

"It excites me to play well and to try and win. And the FedExCup is... one of the only things that I haven't put on my golf CV and that would be more exciting to do that rather than walk away with a cheque."

McIlroy said he had learned some lessons from 2015, including that he should avoid putting extra pressure on himself as he believes he did when he was trying to extend his run to three majors in a row at the Masters in April.

"I'll still work as hard as ever in trying to get prepared and trying to get my shape in the best place possible to play those (major) tournaments, but not work at it for the reason of 'I can make history here'.

"There was just this expectation of and knowing what was at stake, what could happen, instead of just going out and playing and trying not to think about all that stuff."

"Don't play football in the middle of the season", was another lesson he learned.

But there were more and it's not that he's played poorly by any means — three wins, one runner-up and five Top 10s from 15 starts is not bad especially when you consider that the wins were massively impressive — three shots in Dubai, seven at the Wells Fargo. In the WGC-Cadillac Matchplay he was unstoppable.

Putting is something he has to give constant attention to remain a threat, even with all his power and consistency from tee to green.

“In golf, you go with one thought for a while and all of a sudden, that doesn’t work anymore and then you’re trying to figure out another thought to go with,” he said. “Last year, I got to the course every morning and holed whatever it was putts in a row.

"It was more of a repetitive thing and a routine. In parts of the year, I felt I was standing in the same place too long just doing that over and over instead of going around the green and working on green reading and things you do on the course.

"I feel like I was doing drills too much. The last two months, I’ve gotten away from the drills. I think I need to find a balance, that’s what I’m trying to do at the moment.”

As for Spieth and Day, he sees the former's major performances as more than enough reason to vote him Player of the Year in the US.

“The majors trump anything else,” McIlroy said. “Winning two majors, going 54 under par in the four majors. Obviously, there’s a ballot at the end of the year. I know who I would be voting for. And that’s no disrespect to Jason at all. He’s been great. He’s been the best player for the last three months but you’ve got to go on majors and Jordan was the best player in those tournaments.”

Day has something McIlroy needs back — the world No 1 crown.

Asked how tough it might be for the Australian to hold on to top spot, McIlroy laughed: '“Hopefully, very tough. It’s a cool thing to do, knowing you have to win to do it. It’s deserved.

"Jason has that title, he is the best player in the world right now. I don’t think anyone can argue with that. I’m just one of the guys who are going to try to make it tough for him to stay there.”