McIlroy facing another career watershed

McIlroy facing another career watershed
Rory McIlroy holed this one but he's missing more than his share of putts

Rory McIlroy holed this one but he's missing more than his share of putts

When Rory McIlroy imploded on the back nine at Augusta in 2011, his post tournament TV interview marked him out as a special talent.

“I gave Rory the option,” CBS’ Peter Kostis said. "‘Rory I have been asked to interview you. Obviously I would understand if you were decline.’

“I told him I wouldn’t throw him under the bus. I know him reasonably well and I think he knew it isn’t our job to ask him aggressive questions right at the moment in time.

“All he said was ‘Right now all I need is a hug. Give me hug and we will do the interview.’ So I gave him a hug and we did the interview.”

The then 21-year old explained how he let a four-stroke 54 hole slip and crashed to an 80 as best he could. And he manned up on Friday too after what could be another key moment in his career.

That Masters remains McIlroy’s biggest sporting disappointment to date and the pain will linger until he finally slips on one of those Augusta National green jackets.

Friday evening’s butchering of the 18th hole at Baltusrol marks a watershed for McIlroy. Or at last, it can be if he reacts to his missed cut in the PGA Championship the way he reacted to losing the Masters that year.

The difference between the two events is abysmal — a 20 year old with no major wins is not a 27-year old former world No 1 with four — but the basics are the same.

In saying in New Jersey on Friday that he needs to go back to the drawing board and do something about his putting, the Co Down man was already on to a winner.

“Tee to green was good, but it was just pathetic when I got onto the green,” he said.

He added; “I’ve hit the ball really well this week and I’m walking away not playing the weekend. It’s really disheartening. As I said, I need to go back to the drawing board and see where we go from here.”

What remains to be seen is whether or not he can successfully correct his putting the way he did from 2008 to 2011 with the help of Dr Paul Hurrion and Dave Stockton.

What differentiates McIlroy of April 2011 from the McIlroy of August 2016 is not just the Nike millions and the major wins but the people who surround him.

Chubby Chandler has his critics but he’s always been a canny manager when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the game of golf and that experience helped McIlroy come back and win the US Open just weeks after his Augusta National disappointment.

Not only did McIlroy learn a lot about how to handle a lead in a major — he went on to a record-smashing US Open win at Congressional just six weeks later — he was advised about body language and the importance of posture by the likes of former cricketer Michael Vaughan.

With Stockton off the scene for now, one wonders if McIlroy will return to the two time US PGA winning putting teacher again.

Somebody needs to take charge but having worked for a while with bio-mechanical putting expert Hurrion before giving up, one wonders if McIlroy has the mental discipline to stick with the horribly mundane task of grinding his putting stroke into shape.

As Spieth’s coach, Cameron McCormick put it, dedication is key.

“Jordan has been blessed with immense talent and athleticism, but he also boasts an incredible work ethic and mature approach to practice,” McCormick said.

McIlroy is no great lover of practice and while his physical training has clearly helped him avoid injury and become more powerful and balanced, it’s unclear if he dedicates as much time to his putting as he does to working out in the gym. He last saw Hurrion before the Masters. Briefly. With Stockton their interaction at Baltusrol was a lunch with Gerry McIlroy. If future plans were discussed, Stockton didn't mention them when he spoke to Newstalk last week.

As he gets older, the power advantage he enjoys over his rivals will wane and as former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley said this week, it’s time for McIlroy to reassess and look ahead to what his career will be like over the next five years.

He relies heavily on his “team” but while Michael Bannon is an excellent swing coach for Rory, putting is not his speciality and caddie JP Fitzgerald has enough work getting the player to listen to his strategy advice.

The other members of McIlroy’s backroom team are not professional golfers.

As for his Nike handler, it will be interesting to see how that relationship develops when the contract comes up for renewal.

After two years without a major, McIlroy will remind you that Tiger Woods didn’t win a major in 2003 or 2004, then won five of the next 14 to take his tally to 14. Nicklaus had three ‘droughts’ of two years or more.

Set to get married next year, he finds himself facing a new life as a married man and a changing golfing landscape with younger, fitter rivals gunning for the same goals.

Tee to green is good, I just need to figure out what to do on the greens.
— Rory McIlroy

"There's a time for reflection for Rory now, as he's not the young new kid on the block anymore and is one of the more experienced players here,” Paul McGinley said after watching McIlroy’s erratic performance on Friday.

“A lot of it is confidence,” McGinley said. "It is not like he is weak in any area of his game. Okay, his putting is probably the weakest of all. But it’s not off the scale weak. He’s not yipping putts.

"But there certainly has to be a reassessment of how he is going about it. He has reached a different level in his career.

"He is getting older, he is getting married soon. There is a whole new change going on and the guys coming behind him have really closed the gap on him and maybe even overtaken him.

"And he has got to reassess the next number of years, how he is going to go about it and maybe change a couple of things.” 

McIlroy attended Carl Frampton’s world title fight on Saturday night but as he takes two weeks off now to prepare for the FedEx Cup, one wonders how enthused he is to get into the training ring himself.

Being knocked off your pedestal when you are the third youngest player since Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus to win four majors is going to hurt your ego.

And McIlroy hinted that he’s irked by being overtaken in the world rankings by Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson.

His sometimes tetchy pre-Open Championship press conference told us that much when he addressed his non-participation in the Olympics with the subtlety of the man trying to peel a hard boiled egg with a sledgehammer.

When told that one writer had said he was in danger of becoming the Ringo Starr of the Fab Four, he reminded us which of the big four has more majors.

He said: “I’ve got four major championships, and I’d love to add to that tally, just as those guys would love to add to their one or two majors that they have and just keep going.”

He was just as upset when asked on Friday about his putting and his year.

Asked if he saw any sign of progress on the greens after Thursday evening’s late practice session, he said: ‘Not really.”

And the year?


He now has two weeks off to prepare for the FedEx Cup but he sounded like a man who plans to do something about his putting sooner rather than later.

“Tee to green is good, I just need to figure out what to do on the greens. I need to have a long hard think about that.”

This marks the first year he has missed the cut in two of the four majors since 2010 and he knows what he has to do.

“Putting let me down at Merion. I think I missed the cut there, too, didn't I? Oakmont, and then putting let me down here again. My tee to green game, there's not much wrong with that. It's pretty solid. Driving the ball well, hitting good iron shots.

"I think if you had to given anyone else in this field my tee shots this week, they would have been up near the top of the leaderboard. It just shows you how bad I was around the greens.”

The stats bear that out. He was first for strokes gained off the tee and close to last for putting.

Playing partner Mickelson said the Ulsterman had a mental block but would recover.

“We all have periods where we have mental blocks on the greens,” Mickelson said. “Right now he’s just so tentative through impact.

“He’s just not confident. You can just tell. You watch him with a driver and it’s the sweetest thing you can imagine.

“It just goes through effortlessly with so much speed and power, and the ball just flies so long and true with such a tight flight pattern.

“He’s just not striking his putts with the same confidence as he is his driver. That comes and goes.

“It’s not that he’s not capable. He’s just having a period where he’s not feeling it. He will get it back.”