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Can McIlroy Overcome Recent Woes this Week at Muirfield?
This hasn't been the best of seasons for Rory McIlroy. Much is expected of the Northern Irishman, who recorded six wins on the PGA Tour and three on the European Tour - including two major titles - before he turned 24.
But, a combination of changes to his swing and equipment - the latter coming after he signed a much-ballyhooed multi-million-dollar contract with Nike in early 2013, has led to some disappointing results and, on occasion, regrettable decisions.
One of the most egregious actions was his sudden withdrawal from the Honda Classic in February, receiving widespread condemnation for that action. After opening with a respectable even-par 70, McIlroy played the first eight holes on Friday in 7-over and suddenly left the Champion course at PGA National. Though he told reporters he was suffering from tooth pain, the world No. 1 at the time later admitted he could have handled the situation much better.
There's also the matter of his performances which, for a player of his caliber, have been unexceptional. In 13 starts this season, he's had four top-10s, with three missed cuts, one withdrawal and four finishes of 33rd or worse. His most recent victory came last November in Dubai.
Recently, he's heard criticisms from such well-known observers as Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo. Miller, NBC's golf analyst, remarked that McIlroy's dalliances with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki have been "distracting," while Faldo - the lead golf analyst for CBS Sports who's returning to competition for the first time in three years at this week's Open Championship at Muirfield - says the young Ulsterman is lacking concentration and focus.
In a sit-down with reporters on Wednesday from Muirfield, McIlroy was asked whether his recent play warrants such judgments. "No, I don't think that at all," he responded. "The thing I think is, what's the big deal? I haven't had the best six months, but it's not - it's okay. I'm fine. I've got a good life.
"So, you know, it doesn't bother me. I'm in a good place. And as I said, I'm working hard. I feel like I'm working on the right things. And sooner or later it will turn around and I'll be back lifting trophies."
McIlroy hopes that happens at Muirfield, a links and the type of course, oddly enough, he feels - despite growing up playing on them - doesn't fit his game. Indeed, in five Opens his best finish is a T3 in 2010 at St. Andrews, eight shots behind winner Louis Oosthuizen. His next-best finish was a 25th the following year at Royal St. George's in England.
He's not had much better luck in either of the year's first two majors; at the Masters he finished tied for 25th and in last month's U.S. Open at Merion he ended up T41.
But McIlroy can underscore his No. 2 ranking - behind Tiger Woods - if he wins his third major at Muirfield. He'd also cement his reputation as one of the game's best players with a high finish at Muirfield.
On the eve of the 142nd Open Championship, he met with the media and discussed his chances of that happening. He'll be paired in the opening round with Phil Mickelson - who won last week's Scottish Open - and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama. Here's what McIlroy had to say.
MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to welcome former No. 1 and two-time major championship Rory McIlroy. Thanks for joining us today. You're playing your first Open Championship here at Muirfield. Can you give us your thoughts and expectations going into this week.
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, first look at Muirfield, I obviously heard a lot of great things about it. I remember watching Ernie win here in 2002. But didn't really know much about the golf course. And came here, I guess it's about ten days ago now, played a couple of practice rounds, and then got here on Sunday and played another three Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. So played a lot of golf around here over the last ten days. It's a great golf course. Very fair. Everything is right there in front of you. No little hidden surprises, like a lot of links courses that we play. And obviously with the weather, the conditions are firm and fast and I think the way a links course should be played. It's all set up and looks like it's going to be a great week.
Q. I think you were trying to play some competitive golf out there with one ball, sometimes, anyway. What's the best score you shot?
RORY MCILROY: Actually I shot my best score in the most difficult conditions. It was very windy on - must have been Monday morning. And I shot a couple under right there in those conditions. And everything else has sort of been around level par or over. It's tough. You hit it in the rough here and you've just got to try to get it back into play. And it's wispy, but at the same time, you've got a lie, and you think you can get a 7- or 8-iron on it. And the longer stuff just wraps around the hosel and the ball goes straight left. When you put it in the rough here, you've got to take your medicine and get it back into play.
Q. In your ten days since when you played your first practice round here until now, has the course hardened up appreciably, or was it hard then, even ten days ago?
RORY MCILROY: It was hard, but it was definitely more green. It's definitely got a lot more fiery over the past 10 days. I know they've been putting a lot of water on it the past couple of nights, even yesterday morning I was out there early and they were still putting water on the 8th green. They're obviously just trying to keep it where it is. But it's going to be great. As I said, it's a way a links course should be played. You've got to hit a few shots that you don't normally hit during the year. So it will be good. And you've got to have quite a bit of imagination to obviously get the ball on the ground and get it running for the most part.
Q. Just want to know if you've seen Nick Faldo's comments the last few days, saying you should concentrate on your golf. Is that a frustration for you to hear that thing in preparation for the championship?
RORY MCILROY: I saw what he said, and he said I should be at the course nine to five. I actually was on the range at 6:15, and got out of the gym at 6:15, actually a 12-hour day compared to his eight-hour day. It is what it is, and Nick should know how hard this game is at times. And he's been in our position before. And he should know how much work that we all do put into it.
Q. Is he trying to help you, though, or do you think he's not helping you at all?
RORY MCILROY: I don't know.
Q. How difficult is it for you guys to just completely forget all the stuff that you do most weeks, with the high ball, stopping it, to play a completely different game when you're looking to hit it low, you're looking to find the spots where it's going to run on 50 yards? To get that mind change for this particular week, how tough is that for you?
RORY MCILROY: I wouldn't say it's tough. It's an adjustment. I think it's a very - it's an exciting challenge. It's obviously a challenge to adapt your game to the course that you're going to play. But we do, most weeks, obviously, as you said, most of the time our golf is mostly through the air, especially over in the States where obviously - U.S. Open is a little bit different. This year because it was wet most times it was through the air. That's why most guys come here early and a lot of guys played in Scotland or up in Inverness last week to get a feel for links golf. I don't think it takes too much of an adjustment. I think spending a few days around the greens and getting to work on a few different shots off the tee or into the greens, most of the guys are good enough to adjust in a few days.
Q. Is it fun, actually, to be able to test yourself, like here where the wind is so many different ways?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, it is, it's great. We're going to have a few different winds this week, so tomorrow it's going to be out of the west, like it has been the last few days. And Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it's going to be completely different, out of the east. We'll play the golf course in two different winds, which will be great, as well.
Q. We are very excited for your performance also playing this Japanese, Hideki Matsuyama. You've been playing many Japanese, but if you compare them, what do you think about Hideki's performance?
RORY MCILROY: To be honest, I've never played with him before. So it's going to be my first time. But obviously his performances have been very impressive. He played well at the Masters. And he seems like a very, very talented player. It will be good and it will be exciting to play with them. Obviously I've played with Ryo a lot over the past few years. He's a great player. And just getting adjusted to playing golf in the States. He's coming along. Yeah, looking forward to the next two days, it should be a good grouping with Phil Mickelson there, as well.
Q. You mentioned Nick Faldo and saying how he should know how hard the game is. Can you talk about how hard the game has been for you over the last year, where you are now, and how hard the game is outside the ropes for you?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, it's been - I think the game's been a bit of a contrast, because there's been times where it felt not to hard and I went on a great run from this point last year until the end of the season. And then, yeah, it's like life. You're going to go through highs and you're going to go through lows. It's just about trying to work your way out of the lows. Yeah, I haven't played my best golf this year, but I've showed signs that it is there. It's just a matter of trying to do that more often. But, yeah, it's been difficult to try, I guess, explain why I'm not playing well or why I haven't had the results that I've wanted over the past six months. But I know that I'm working on the right things and I know that I'm doing the right things and I'm staying patient. And I know sooner or later it will turn around and I'll play the golf that everyone knows that I'm capable of and the golf it that I know that's capable of winning major championships.
Q. Given how much you've achieved at such a young age, you're a good ambassador for the game, do you sometimes think why me? Why am I getting so much criticism, why are people on my case?
RORY MCILROY: No, I don't think that at all. The thing I think is what's the big deal? I haven't had the best six months, but it's not - it's okay. I'm fine. I've got a good life. So, you know, it doesn't bother me. I'm in a good place. And as I said, I'm working hard. I feel like I'm working on the right things. And sooner or later it will turn around and I'll be back lifting trophies.
Q. Bouncing off that a little bit, as your career has flourished, obviously so has the scrutiny with every move you make, the equipment change, the management change, things like that. Have you come up with a formula on how to deal with that? There's really no training for that at all. Have you ever sought counsel from Tiger, who's probably the only guy that's gone through that before?
RORY MCILROY: I guess the best way is to not read too much or not listen too much or not watch too much TV. And especially not about yourself. I think that's the best thing, to try and stay oblivious about what people are saying about you, in particular, try and wrap yourself in a little bubble. But obviously it's hard to avoid at times. Yeah, again, you just have to have the confidence and the self belief in yourself that you're doing the right things and know that what you're doing is ultimately going to get you to the place that you want to be.
Q. Have you seen the Body Issue and in particular the Gary Player photos, and what are your thoughts on them?
RORY MCILROY: I actually haven't. I haven't seen them. I knew he was doing it, but I haven't seen any pictures.
Q. I want to ask a question about The Open Championship: I know this is the oldest championship, the major championship and the most prestigious championship. What does it mean for you to be here?
RORY MCILROY: It's amazing to me that this is my sixth Open, going back to Carnoustie in 2007, and that was in 2008 I missed when it was in Birkdale. It's great. It's great to be - I grew up watching the Open on TV. And it seems like a regular thing, The Open. Seven or eight years ago it was such a huge buzz, it's still a huge buzz. Anytime you come to a major championship or you come to an Open, you're excited. Even though I feel I'm in the position where I can contend for them, I've been able to win a couple. And there's always that extra little bit of buzz that surrounds the tournament, and it's always exciting to get back to the biggest tournaments in the world.
Q. You mentioned self belief, that it will come, and patience. Are you by nature a patient person or is that difficult for you?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I am. I'm pretty laid back, when it comes to these sort of things. So, yeah, I don't mind waiting. I'd say patience is something that I've learned over the years, I guess. As I said, as long as I know that I'm working on the right things and I'm progressing, I'm moving forward, I'll wait as long as it takes for it to come right.
Q. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods were very supportive of you yesterday, spoke warmly about you. How much do you appreciate that, and how much can you take from Tiger's experience in the past with what he's gone through and come back strong?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, Tiger more than anyone else in this game, probably more than anyone else in sport, has been scrutinized and criticized throughout his entire career. He set the bar so high and that's the expectations that everyone thought he was going to live up to. And it was only a couple of years ago that he had dropped outside the top 50 in the world. And he's worked his way back up. And he's now the best player in the world again. He's won four times this year. And whenever everyone was saying that working with Sean Foley wasn't the right thing to do, he stuck on it, stuck at what he was trying to do. He had a plan in place. He stuck by it and all of a sudden proved a lot of people wrong. Those guys know. They still play, they're still practicing, they're still competing. They know how hard this game is at times. It seems like a few guys have forgotten in a short space of time how hard you have to work and how tough this game can be.
Q. Peter Dawson was just in here and obviously faced a lot of questions about the membership policies at Muirfield and where that's going to be going forward. Do you have any thoughts on the issue or at least any sense of how the players feel about this? Most have been reluctant to speak out. Secondly, do players have, no matter where they stand on the issue, have more of a responsibility to speak out, give their opinion of this and maybe lend their influence to the usual issue?
RORY MCILROY: Muirfield is a great golf course.
Q. I know you're a huge fan, Wayne Rooney is angry and confused with what's going on at the moment. If you could offer a few words of advice?
RORY MCILROY: If I was Wayne I would be very confused, too. He's had nine great seasons at Man United, and reading between the lines of what's being said, I don't think he needs to prove himself to anyone, I don't think he needs to prove himself to the new manager, I don't think he should be playing second fiddle to van Persie, he's been a great player and a very loyal player for Man United. And I guess, I think - yeah, if I was him I'd probably be in the same position. So I hope it gets sorted pretty quickly and he obviously stays at Old Trafford.
Q. Any words of advice for him?
RORY MCILROY: He knows what he wants to do more than I - I guess he just wants to play football. I think he's that sort of player. He just wants to get on the pitch and show what he can do. And if he doesn't feel he can do that at United, he'll obviously want to go elsewhere. And I think that's very understandable.
Q. You did speak about what's the big deal, I have a good life, which demonstrably you have. Do you have a thing that you could go the route of a Faldo, in that he was obsessive about golf at one point in his life and essentially the only thing he seemed to think about at one point?
RORY MCILROY: No, I could never - no, I'm not like that.
Q. You couldn't get into that frame of mind?
RORY MCILROY: No.
Q. Tony Jacklin was saying on the radio this morning that he thinks you should simply play more tournaments. I know what you said about semi-retired players. Have you considered that, upping your schedule, and specifically next year the Scottish Open is going to be at Royal Aberdeen, which is a much more Open-like venue a week before the Open. Would you think about adding that one particularly to your schedule?
RORY MCILROY: I think we've got a very busy stretch coming up now, I think I'm playing six out of the next eight weeks, or seven out of the next nine, including this one, or seven out of the next ten, I guess. So we've got a big stretch coming up, so I think I'll get a lot of golf. And then I think I'm taking three weeks off after the Tour Championship. And then I've got four tournaments left from then until the end of the season. I feel like I'll get a lot of golf from now until the end of November. I was looking at the schedules for next year last night. The only thing I feel like I could have done better this year was play a couple more tournaments at the start of the year. And I've said that openly. And I've said that before. And about the Scottish, I haven't really thought that far ahead about next year. I guess The Open is at Hoylake, and it's a course - I've played it in the British Boys in 2003. I can't really remember it. I guess it's just to make a decision whether you want to go there early and get to know that course or whether you want to play some competitive golf in a links course. Obviously it's something I'll decide closer to the time.
Q. If you win on Sunday will you thank Nick Faldo from the "heart of your bottom" (laughter)?
RORY MCILROY: Maybe. No, Nick - these things can get - he probably said a million other things in that interview and he obviously said something about me, and that's the thing that's been picked up by everyone else. I know how these things go. I know he wasn't trying to get on my case at all. He was just offering words of advice in some way. Yeah, as I said, I think he has to remember how hard this game can be at times.
Q. You have played maybe the course on six different days, would that be right, before you start on Thursday?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah.
Q. How many holes will you have played? How many different winds have you played in? Can you give us an update on the driver that you have now, what's different about it, why do you like it and how many you think you might hit, depending on the winds?
RORY MCILROY: I played 18 on Monday, the first week I played here. I played 27 Tuesday. And then I played 18 Sunday, 18 Monday, 18 yesterday and I'll play nine today. So it's a lot. It's a lot of holes. I've played it in two different winds. I've played it in the west wind that it's been the last few days. And I've played it in the east wind, which it was the first Monday that I was here. So I've played it in both winds, which I think is quite beneficial. And yeah I've got a new driver in the bag, which is slightly different than the one I have been using, it's a different head shape. More of a pear shape, but it encourages the club face to close over a little bit more. My bad drive this year has been losing it to the right. So this is encouraging the club face to square up on impact and obviously I'm not getting that right shot anymore, which is a huge plus. And I'll hit anywhere between five and seven drivers this week, depending on the wind. That's pretty much it. Two on the front nine and three or four on the back nine, depending. If you get the 12th downwind in the east wind, some guys might go for the green there.
Q. Just on the women's issue, have the players been advised not to speak about it? So don't 50 percent of the population deserve sort of the better on that one?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, for sure. I haven't been advised either way. I just think it's something that a lot of guys don't want to get themselves into because it's quite a controversial issue. And I guess it's - yeah, it's something that shouldn't happen these days. It's something that we shouldn't even be talking about. So that's why I guess a lot of people don't want to talk about it.
Q. And the second part on the golf, for a player searching for his "A" game, is this championship the hardest place to find it just because it is a links - it is a very specific, different test to what you face the rest of the year?
RORY MCILROY: In a way. But, again, the last two weeks have all been about preparing myself for this tournament and this course and the shots that I will need, obviously a lot of low shots. Imagining landing your ball 20 yards short of the green and getting them to bounce up, that sort of the thing. It's more an imagination and visualization this week than technique in a way. Because when it's windy - I don't think it's going to be too windy, but even in these conditions you sort of have to conjure up shots that you don't really work on week in and week out. So I definitely think this week is more about imagination than anything else. So you can look at that in two different ways. But I'm looking forward to the test. I'm looking forward to the challenge. It should be a great week.
Q. When you do go through a difficult patch, like you're saying, do you go back to basics and work on those sort of things, to your roots?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, you go back to the thing - you go back to trying to create feelings that you felt when you were playing well. You go back and look at videos. You go back and look at swings at times where you have been playing well. We've got a library of videos that go back 15 years. I don't want to swing like I was nine years old again, but we have those swings. And we go through them. And I can remember different periods where, okay, I was swinging it well here, what was your feeling? What was your swing thought? And just trying to go back and recreate those feelings. And that's all that you're trying to do.
Q. Because I guess you know better than anybody apart from yourself?
RORY MCILROY: Exactly. We spent a lot of time talking about it. But I don't think it's something that you'll ever stop working on. It's something that you're always going to do throughout your career. You're always going to have periods where it feels good. And you're going to have periods where it doesn't feel so good. And then you're trying to not search but recreate the feelings that helped you play so well at times.
Q. But the very basics that started you off have got you going, you go back to what you know and then work on that?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, fundamental, setup, posture, alignment, all that stuff, yes.
Q. If you could do it all over again, would you have changed all your clubs at the same time and the ball? Tiger did it stage by stage.
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I still would. Because I would rather have it done in a three- or six-month period rather than having it drawn out over two or three years. I'd rather get it done straight away and then at least after that three- or six-month transition period you're fully comfortable with - I don't mind maybe not playing your best golf for six months. It isn't a huge sacrifice in a 30-year career. That's the way I think of it, anyway.
Q. How would you describe the state of your game right now, this week?
RORY MCILROY: Promising. I think that's the word. It's promising. It's definitely heading in the right direction and I'm excited for the next few weeks, obviously starting with here, and then a great stretch in the States, with Akron, PGA and then all the FedEx Cup series.
Q. When you're playing a course where imagination matters as much as technique, is it almost more freeing that you can throw out a lot of the swing thoughts and just play instinctively?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, definitely. You're not really thinking about many swing shots. You're thinking about shot shapes, you're thinking about ball flights, where the ball will land, what it's going to do when it hits the ground. You're thinking about that way more than your swing or technique. In that way it will probably free a lot of players up because you're so concentrated on playing a certain shot rather than making a swing.
Q. Just quickly to go back to the gender thing, Peter Dawson was saying earlier that he understands that men want to associate with men, single-gender clubs. Could you imagine anyone, not necessarily particularly you, but anyone of your generation wanting to join a single-gender club?
RORY MCILROY: I don't know. It's something I've never thought about. I don't know. I just don't think it's something that is a real issue anymore. Obviously it's an issue in some golf clubs. But in terms of life in general, I think men and women are treated equally for the most part these days. And that's the way it should be.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Rory, good luck this week.
RORY MCILROY: Thank you.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.