Steve Parsons/Associated Press file photo
Steve Parsons/Associated Press file photo
DUBLIN, Ohio – Rory McIlroy is playing more golf than he planned going into his title defense at the U.S. Open.
Just not on the right days.
McIlroy lost his No. 1 ranking – and briefly lost his composure – by missing consecutive cuts at two big tournaments at The Players Championship and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, where frustrations boiled over to the point that he tossed a 6-iron after an errant shot.
If nothing else, it was a wake-up call for McIlroy.
“When you’ve went on a run when you’ve hardly finished outside the top five and then all of a sudden two missed cuts, it’s more of a shock than anything else,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “Just a little bit surprising, and it’s something I haven’t really had to deal with in a while, and I just have to knuckle down and figure it out and get back to the way I was at the start of the year.”
He can only hope the Memorial is the start of another big run.
Most of the game’s best players are at Muirfield Village, a popular spot because Jack Nicklaus is the tournament host and it is at good location on the schedule with the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club only two weeks away.
It’s the strongest field of a regular PGA Tour event this year, featuring McIlroy, world No. 1 Luke Donald, defending champion Steve Stricker and Masters champion Bubba Watson, along with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
McIlroy added the St. Jude Classic next week as he tries to find a form that suddenly went missing.
“I just feel like I need more rounds,” he said. “These two-day weeks aren’t really that good for me.”
He has lost his No. 1 ranking (again) to Donald. He has lost out on a chance to play on the weekend.
He has not lost his perspective, his refreshing honesty and some of that self-deprecating humor. By playing next week in Memphis, that means McIlroy will not see Olympic until he arrives for the U.S. Open.
“I’m planning on ... getting there on Sunday night. Do you know what I mean?” he said with a smile, another dig at himself by suggesting that he hopes to be playing on the weekend at the St. Jude Classic.
McIlroy, who turned 23 earlier this month, already is getting the scrutiny that has accompanied Woods his entire career and Mickelson when he went a decade without winning a major. It was big news when he missed the cut at Sawgrass as the No. 1 player and even bigger news when he tossed the club at Wentworth on his way to missing the cut by a mile.
He gets just as much attention off the course for going to Italy after The Players Championship and to Paris for a day after missing the cut at Wentworth to see his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
“Last week I threw my 6-iron on the 12th hole, and I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” McIlroy said. “And then I wake up the next morning, and it’s all over the papers in the U.K. And I’m just like, ‘Oh, my god.’ It’s just one of those things, and it’s something I’m going to have to deal with and learn how to do.”
Donald, even though he has been at No. 1 for all but two months of the last two years, doesn’t face this kind of constant scrutiny. Even so, he remembers what it was like to be 23 and seeking to find a balance between a girlfriend and golf and everything else that goes into trying to be the best.
“You can’t blame the kid,” Donald said. “But he’s obviously realized that, and it looks like he’s trying to focus on practicing a little bit harder and getting back to what he does. It’s a tough game. Certainly for me, from a personal standpoint, if I don’t put the work in, I’m not going to get the results. Rory sounds like he’s got to that point where everything has been pretty easy up until this point, and he’s come into a little bit of a bad run of form. This game does that to you.
“It’s a fickle game, and it’s tough,” he said. “You’ve just got to work through it.”
McIlroy is working. Despite all the attention on his quick trip to the Paris, he spent some seven hours on the range at Wentworth the day after missing the cut. He put in a full day at the gym Sunday, practiced for six hours with swing coach Michael Bannon on Tuesday and was back on the range at Muirfield Village after his pro-am.
McIlroy said he looked at old video with Bannon in his hotel room to seek out flaws. He thinks he found them and now is working to get back to where he was.
Along the way, he found time for some important matters.
A year ago, he went to Haiti on a UNICEF trip to meet with kids who survived the earthquake. McIlroy always has time for kids, perhaps because he still feels like one himself.
At Quail Hollow this year, where he was in a three-man playoff won by Rickie Fowler, McIlroy filmed a commercial with a 7-year-old undergoing chemotherapy.
And at the Memorial, he met a young boy named Tucker before his pro-am round as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Tucker had two open-heart surgeries before he was 6. McIlroy met him later on the range and watched him hit balls.
“I started to give him some advice, and he started to not hit so well, so I just shut up,” McIlroy said.