Rory McIlroy limps into next week’s Open Championship at Muirfield as if he needs a figurative cane. Since tying for eighth at the Players Championship, which capped four straight top 25s that included second at the Valero Texas Open, McIlroy has performed like a journeyman professional rather than a World No. 2.
His record since early May is pretty only to a has-been or never-will: Missed cut at BMW PGA Championship, tie for 57th at Memorial, tie for 41st at U.S. Open and missed cut at Irish Open.
The phenom from Northern Ireland has been prone to such slumps before, such as when he missed three cuts in four Tour starts last May-June before winning three times in a month in late summer. In terms of consistency then, up to age 24 anyway, he is more like Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods – meaning he could pop up at any time and win yet again.
McIlroy’s latest bad patch has been punctuated by waning confidence, substandard short game and a tendency to hang his tee shots right with an inconsistent swing. Hence, after missing his latest cut in Ireland, he said he was still working with Nike to find the right driver and putter.
The slump also has been met by a “told you so” from six-time major champion Nick Faldo, who had cautioned late last year that it was “dangerous” for the then-No. 1 to make wholesale equipment changes upon signing the second-most lucrative contract in golf history. On top of that, McIlroy would part ways with the agent who got him that dream deal only a few months later, creating yet another change from his top-ranked days.
Faldo spoke from experience. The Englishman says he won all of his majors using Mizuno irons, switched, tried a couple of different brands, never won again and has lived to regret it. He is not alone. Others have suffered setbacks after signing lucrative contracts to use different equipment, notably the late Payne Stewart in the early 1990s.
“Rory very simply messed with a winning formula,” Faldo said in making a valid point last week. “I tweeted right away when it was announced that this was a dangerous move. People said, ‘Oh, he’s so talented, he can adapt.’ Well, why should the World No. 1 be adapting to something new? As we discovered six months later, he’s busy still trying putters, still trying drivers. It’s not as easy.”
In this case, there are millions of reasons, all colored green, on why he would change. In the half year since, insiders have surmised that McIlroy has had difficulty adjusting to a new ball as well as to drivers and putters.
Whether his issue be equipment or swing or a hybrid of the two, statistics suggest that he is missing far more to the right off the tee than he did last year. His misses to each side of the fairway were fairly even in 2012, but this year 17.6 percent of his drives have found the right rough and 10.7 percent the left. That is significant, if for no other reason, because he ranks 161st on Tour in approach shot proximity from the right rough.
What’s more, 60 percent of his drives that find a fairway or fairway bunker end up right of the center line.
You may be surprised to know, though, that McIlroy actually is hitting a higher percentage of fairways (60.8 to 56.6 percent) and greens (68.9 to 66.4) this year than last.
Then why the dropoff in results? The numbers say short game.
McIlroy ranks 129th in putting (strokes gained) compared with 82nd last year. And he’s 165th in scrambling compared with 33rd a year ago. He has gotten the ball up and down only 53 percent of the time, a big drop from last year’s 60.2. For perspective, the Tour average is 57.2 and the leader, Chris Kirk, comes in at 66.3.
One point McIlroy and Faldo do agree on is that lack of confidence has been a problem. McIlroy said at the U.S. Open that the occasional squirrelly shots have eroded some confidence. He went even further while missing the Irish Open cut.
“At the moment, no aspects of my game are strong and I’m just feeling a bit lost at the moment,” he said then. “It feels good on the range and I can hit all the shots, but when I get out on the course it really does not seem to be there. ... I don’t know whether it’s a matter of trying to play my way out of it or just keep grinding away on the range or whatever.”
That hardly sounds good entering the Open, a tournament in which he tied for 60th and 25th the past two years. But then golf form, as McIlroy has shown, can change quickly – both ways.