McIl­roy look­ing to re­gain past form

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

SOUTH­PORT, Eng­land — Just three years ago, Rory McIl­roy was the best player in the world with­out a trace of ar­gu­ment. He won the fi­nal two ma­jors of the year, with a World Golf Cham­pi­onship ti­tle in be­tween. He had rea­son to be­lieve his reign would last as long as he wanted.

Now he’s sim­ply try­ing to get back into the con­ver­sa­tion.

The stark­est re­minder of the state of his game was not so much miss­ing three cuts in his past four tour­na­ments. It was be­ing told on the eve of the Bri­tish Open that the book­ies listed him at 20-1 to win at Royal Birk­dale.

“Good time to back me,” McIl­roy said. “I mean, look, if I was a bet­ting com­pany and I saw my form over the past few weeks, yeah, that’s prob­a­bly a fair enough price. But again, all it takes is one week for those odds to go back.”

He has been through these mini-slumps more than once in the 10 years since he first played the Bri­tish Open at Carnoustie. McIl­roy missed four of five cuts in 2012, in­clud­ing his ti­tle de­fense in the U.S. Open, and ended the sum­mer by win­ning the PGA Cham­pi­onship to re­turn to No. 1 in the world.

This one has been the most ag­gra­vat­ing be­cause it in­volves in­jury.

The hair­line rib frac­ture he suf­fered in Jan­uary dur­ing the South African Open is no longer an is­sue, but it forced him to sit out nearly two months, and then he played only once in two months be­tween the Mas­ters and the U.S. Open in part be­cause it was act­ing up.

It all led to what McIl­roy de­scribes as a start-and-stop year, one that to this point doesn’t in­clude a tro­phy.

“But I’m in good spir­its,” McIl­roy said. “I feel like it’s all com­ing to­gether. I’m just wait­ing for that round or that mo­ment or that week where it sort of clicks and I’ll be off and run­ning. I’ve had lit­tle pe­ri­ods like this be­fore in my ca­reer, and I’ve been able to bounce back from them. I’d say I was in worse po­si­tions than this. I feel like my game … the pieces are all there, it’s just about try­ing to fit them to­gether.”

As for his odds?

That speaks to a broader pic­ture of the 146th edi­tion

of the Bri­tish Open, which starts this morn­ing at Royal Birk­dale. Dustin John­son, the No. 1 player in the world, and Jor­dan Spi­eth have taken turns as the fa­vorite by the book­ies. Right be­hind them is Jon Rahm, the dy­namic 22-year-old from Spain who al­ready has won twice this year. Mas­ters cham­pion Ser­gio Gar­cia is right up there. There is no clear fa­vorite. There is no clear plot that is any dif­fer­ent from the pre­vi­ous few ma­jors, ex­cept for the U.S. Open held on a new course in Wis­con­sin.

John­son was close to be­ing a dom­i­nant fig­ure when he won three con­sec­u­tive tour­na­ments against the strong­est fields of the year at the time, and then he slipped down the stairs on the eve of the Mas­ters, wrenched his back and didn’t swing a club for a month.

Ja­son Day ended last year at No. 1 in the world, and then found him­self emo­tion­ally wrapped up in tend­ing to his mother, who was di­ag­nosed with lung can­cer.

McIl­roy wouldn’t have seen this com­ing at the end of last year when he won the FedEx Cup.

“But these things sort of crop up out of nowhere and they chal­lenge us,” he said.

Maybe it’s one shot, one round, one week to get that spark. That’s what John­son is look­ing for since his re­turn from back in­jury.

“It’s taken me a long time to get ev­ery­thing back to feel­ing where it was,” John­son said. “I’m try­ing to get back to that point. It’s def­i­nitely a lot harder.”

When he won the Bri­tish Open down the coast at Royal Liver­pool in 2014, McIl­roy men­tioned an adage he first heard from Tom Weiskopf. When a player is go­ing well, he can’t imag­ine what it was like to play poorly. And when he’s play­ing badly, he can’t imag­ine what it was like to play great.

So where is he now?

“I feel like I can hit the ball in the fair­way, and from there I can hit the ball on the green,” McIl­roy said. “And if I get my line, I can put the ball in the hole from there. So it’s not bad. It’s not as if I can’t see my­self shoot­ing a good score. It’s all there. It’s just a mat­ter of putting it all to­gether.”

He has slipped so far from the dom­i­nant force in golf — McIl­roy hasn’t been at No. 1 since Septem­ber 2015 — that he could win the next two ma­jors and still prob­a­bly not reach John­son at the top of the rank­ing.

His odds would cer­tainly get bet­ter, just like when he was the fa­vorite at just about ev­ery ma­jor. He still re­mem­bers those days.

“When you ride on the crest of a wave, it’s easy to get caught up with those ex­pec­ta­tions and you start be­liev­ing them,” he said. “When I won those three tour­na­ments in ‘14 and I was where I was in the game, of course I thought, ‘OK, I re­ally can keep this go­ing.’ … And some things just come along that you don’t ex­pect.

“I’m in a place where I’m try­ing to fig­ure out how I get back to that po­si­tion where I was,” he said. “I’m try­ing to get back there and I’m do­ing ev­ery­thing I can. And hope­fully the start of that crest of a wave hap­pens this week.”

AP/PE­TER MOR­RI­SON

Rory McIl­roy hasn’t won a tour­na­ment since win­ning the 2016 PGA Tour Cham­pi­onship, but he’s hop­ing to break through with his first vic­tory of the year at this week’s Bri­tish Open.

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