NORTON – Sometimes, 12 months can feel like 12 days. In Rory McIlroy’s case, it probably feels like 12 years.
Exactly one year ago, McIlroy was on top of golf’s kingdom, fresh off an eight-shot win at the PGA Championship. He was ranked No. 1 in the world, and would soon add back-to-back victories in the PGA Tour playoffs: First at the Deutsche Bank Championship – where he will defend his title this week – then at the BMW Championship.
McIlroy was a marketing dream: Boyish, approachable, accommodating, refreshingly humble, photogenic, immediately likeable and with a famous girlfriend (Caroline Wozniacki). Most of all, successful. When playing at his best — and he was, 12 months ago — McIlroy could not be beat, no matter what anybody else did, the same way it had been for years with Tiger Woods. McIlroy overcame final-round deficits (like at TPC Boston, when he trailed by three), and led wire-to-wire (like at the BMW).
Want more? In a five-tournament stretch last year spanning August and September in which he won three times, McIlroy was a combined 62 under par.
Times have changed. That McIlroy seems like a totally different player than the one we see now. He has yet to win in 2013, has rarely been in contention, and has lost his top spot in the world rankings (he’s No. 4). In his last five tournaments on the PGA Tour, McIlroy is a combined 20 over par.
Theories for the slide are aplenty, but it’s plain to see that the McIlroy who will tee off this week at TPC Boston isn’t playing golf nearly as well as the McIlroy from 12 months ago.
At the core? Confidence.
“I feel like I’m a confident person, but when you play some tournaments and they don’t go your way, of course your confidence is going to get knocked a little bit,” McIlroy said recently. “Winning, as well, is a habit. Once you get on a roll and you can get yourself into contention, if you keep winning all the time, you get into the habit of knowing what to do or knowing what it takes to get that trophy at the end of the week. Obviously, that’s a habit that I’m trying to get back into.
“Confidence-wise, I don’t think I’m very far away. I feel like my game is in pretty good shape. It’s just a matter of letting it happen on the golf course.”
McIlroy has done a slightly better job of that recently. He tied for eighth in his defense of the PGA Championship, then tied for 19th last week at the Barclays. An improvement, but compared with his last two seasons – five wins, 14 top-10 finishes, $9.9 million – it falls well short.
It started ominously, with McIlroy missing the cut in his season-opening event while paired with Woods, shooting a pair of ugly 75s in Abu Dhabi. Then he lost his first-round match in his PGA Tour debut, and withdrew from the Honda Classic during the second round, blaming painful wisdom teeth and taking plenty of heat for the decision.
Scrutiny and speculation has centered on the well-publicized equipment change McIlroy made in the offseason, which came after the best year of his career. Gone were the Titleist clubs and golf ball that had been so good to him for so long. He signed a lucrative deal with Nike, becoming Woods’s stablemate and giving Swoosh, Inc., two of the biggest names in golf.
When McIlroy stumbled out of the gate, the new equipment was a popular topic, with noted television analysts (and former major champions) such as Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller criticizing the wholesale changes.
“It’s one thing to change your driver or your wedge, but you’re asking for huge trouble when you change all your clubs and your golf ball at the same time,” Miller said in an interview this summer with the San Francisco Chronicle.
McIlroy has downplayed the significance – would you expect him to blame his equipment after signing such a big deal? – chalking up his problems this season instead to a swing that’s not been dialed in the way he’s accustomed.
The statistics suggest that McIlroy has taken the biggest step back on and around the greens. He’s actually hitting more fairways and more greens in regulation than 2012, but is not nearly as good when it comes to scrambling (33d on tour last year, 155th this year) or strokes saved-putting (82d last year, 119th this year). Consequently, his scoring average is more than a shot higher per round. That’s four strokes per tournament, sometimes the difference between contending and a tie for 25th.
Ask McIlroy, though, and he’s quick to say what’s let him down the most this year.
“The thing that I’ve been disappointed about most this year has been my driving. I just haven’t hit as many fairways as I should,” McIlroy said. “That’s what’s really killed my scoring ability. It’s obviously much easier to score from the fairway than it is from the rough.”
There’s still time to salvage a lost season, though. A return to TPC Boston could be the perfect time and place to start. McIlroy went 65-65-67-67 last year, a stretch that kicked off 11 straight rounds in the 60s. He’s seen those sub-70 numbers this year, but they’ve been isolated; he had a second-round 65 last week, but followed it up with a lackluster (71-72) weekend. In fact, McIlroy has never shot below 70 in consecutive rounds of any tournament this year, making it difficult to generate much momentum.
Still, McIlroy likes what he sees, especially recently. What encourages him?
“Everything,” he said on Saturday. “I’m seeing the shots. I’m striking the ball well. Short game seems pretty sharp and I’m rolling the ball nicely. Everything feels pretty good.”
Last year good, or this year good? There’s been a massive difference.