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The Road Back To #1

2013 was by all accounts a watershed year for Rory McIlroy. The then 23 year old superstar changed both the clubs he was playing and the ball he used.  For the world’s best players these are drastic deviations and can take quite a long time for them to be comfortable with.  Variations of those changes include how far the new ball travels (they are not all the same), how it feels at impact (some are softer than others), and how far the new irons and woods go.  Very few players change both at the same time because it makes the transition period of getting accustomed to them much more of a guessing game (“is that the ball that went an extra 8 yards or the club?”). 

In addition to the changes in his equipment, McIlroy changed the agents that represented him.  2013 was definitely a transitional year as he also had to get used to the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for only one other golfer, Tiger Woods. Playing golf for a living is difficult enough at the best of times, but when you are thrust into the burning spotlight of being the World #1 and start playing like the World #100, as McIlroy did, that spotlight becomes an inferno. 

At last years’ Honda Classic, it all came to a head for McIlroy when he walked off the course in the middle of his second round (he was several strokes over the cut line), complaining of a toothache. The only ache was of course, had nothing to do with his mouth but everything to do with is game.  True to his forthright nature, McIlroy immediately took responsibility of what is a big “no-no” for a golfer; quitting.        

Towards the end of 2013 though, McIlroy’s game began coming together again and he closed the year with a thrilling come from behind victory in the Emirates Australian Open to beat Adam Scott with a final hole birdie to record his only win in ’13.  In January at the European Tour’s, Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, he would finish second. Two weeks later at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy was the leader after three rounds before faltering in Sunday’s final round to finish in a tie for 9th.  He was gathering momentum both with his game and his confidence.

Such is the nature of McIlroy’s graceful, flowing swing that it is one dependent on timing more so than the more compact moves of many of the modern era players.  In the same vein that Phil Mickelson will run hot and cold with his form, McIlroy will probably also always be a very streaky player.  A player like that has to play their way into form which is never immediate but rather a gradual process of momentum gathering. 

Fittingly, at this weekend’s 2014 Honda Classic at PGA National, McIlroy returned to the main stage that is the PGA Tour.  McIlroy spent last weakend working on his putting stroke with putting guru and former PGA Tour star, Dave Stockton, and saw immediate results this week.  Not only was his swing improved, but his putting was as well.  His opening round of 7-under par, 63, was almost flawless golf and saw him take early control of the event. 

PGA National is one of the hardest courses on the Tour’s schedule and is renowned for its diabolical trio of holes, 15-17, known as The Bear Trap, in honor of their designer, Jack Nicklaus.  It would be the trap that McIlroy could not avoid. 

McIlroy’s Achilles Heel in his golf swing has always been a hook: the most memorable of which was his tee shot on the 10th hole in the final round of the 2011 Masters.  On the back 9 on Sunday, McIlroy began hitting one hook after another as his swing began failing him.  Bogies on the 12th and 17th with a double bogey sandwiched in on the 16th caused the Northern Irishman’s lead to vanish as he went to his final hole.   And then he did what great players are able to do; he righted a sinking ship in the ocean that is golf and hit the most unbelievable second shot to the par-5 18th hole to within 11 feet of the hole.  It was a fade.

A storybook ending would have McIlroy make his eagle putt and snatch a win from the jaws of defeat.  Cinderella was on vacation.  McIlroy’s putt missed to the right and a four player play-off ensued with McIlroy, Ryan Palmer, Russell Knox, and Russell Henley.  Palmer, Knox and McIlroy would all make pars on the first play-off hole, the 18th, while Henley would two putt for a birdie 4 and his second PGA Tour victory (his first came last year in his first ever event on the Tour, at the Sony Open).

McIlroy displayed the maturity and poise that the last turbulent 12 months have taught him in his post event press conference saying that ”I was fortunate I was in the playoff.  74 (his final round score) wasn’t good enough to get the job done.  To go out with a two-shot lead, you have to play well enough to win the thing.  If I had won today, I would have counted myself as lucky.  I’ll pick myself up, get back it, try to get back at it at Doral (next week) and try to get the job done.”

No matter who you are in golf, this game will test every aspect of your human spirit.  In his raw 24 years on this planet, McIlroy is experiencing that.  He seems to be a grand student who is learning at all of his lessons.