McIlroy identifies his problems on the course

Rory McIlroy signs autographs after a practice round for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club.

Rory McIlroy signs autographs after a practice round for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club.

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Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

4/10/2014 - 4/13/2014

Pos Name Thru Today Overall
1 Bubba Watson $1,620,000 600 -8
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Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

• • •

PITTSFORD, N.Y. – The first part of solving a problem, of course, is identifying it. Such obvious profundity would seem to bode well for Rory McIlroy. He now realizes he is a natural player who got too caught up in swing mechanics.

He has said so repeatedly in recent weeks. His inconsistent swing, too reliant upon timing in the impact zone, and an uneven schedule with too many gaps that undermined scoring rhythm have held him back this year. They have led to a decline in confidence and mood. It follows that he regrets not playing more early in the year and focusing too much about swing positions.

“I’ve thought about my swing a little bit too much, and that’s prevented me from playing the way I want to play, which is that carefree, free-flowing game that I usually have,” McIlroy said Wednesday at Oak Hill Country Club on the eve of his PGA Championship defense.

When somebody has won a pair of major championships by eight strokes apiece, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 24. It’s also easy to, ill - advisedly, compare him to Tiger Woods, another rare separation player.

Truth be told, at this point McIlroy is more like Phil Mickelson than Woods because of the performance inconsistencies. Like the lefthander, he’s streaky, with extreme highs and some lows, whereas Woods usually is steady on a high perch.

McIlroy’s swing is the main reason behind his streakiness. He knows this.

“The speed of my body through the ball has always been one of my biggest advantages and maybe one of my disadvantages as well,” he said. “When you have so much speed through the ball, you need to time it perfectly for it to work well all the time.”

As well, Woods has fought timing over the years with his four different winning swings, though not nearly to the extreme of missing several cuts in a short amount of time. And like Woods, McIlroy is introspective about his swing – whereas Mickelson consciously has made it a point not to dissect swing mechanics publicly, preferring to focus on the creativity of a feel player.

Digressing, consider this wonderful take from Mickelson this week about his surprise Open Championship victory at Muirfield: “One of the things I like to do in a major is make golf more of a reactionary sport, where I look at the shot, try to see the shot and just react to it without over‑thinking it or thinking about mechanics. Certainly the British Open, coming down the back nine that's exactly what was happening. ... You have so much running through your head that you want to try to simplify it as much as you can.”

McIlroy can relate to that. He wants to get back to that. At the same time, he wants to know the fundamental elements that create inconsistency.

“When I’m on and I can sync my upper body and lower body, everything’s great,” McIlroy said. “When those two just get a little bit out of sync is when I start to struggle.”

It is reasonable to suggest then that McIlroy, and everyone else for that matter, find a swing motion that becomes far less dependent on timing. Time will tell whether he gets there.

In the meantime, his golf esteem seems to be better than it has been since he tied for eighth at The Players in early May. A tie for 27th at last week’s WGC Bridgestone Championship – after three missed cuts in five starts – is part of the reason. Progress in practice rounds here is another.

“Played really, really well,” he said of his nine holes Wednesday. “I’m feeling good.”

He’s feeling good in part because he recently watched the Feel Good Movie of the Summer, circa 2012. That would be video of his runaway PGA victory last August at Kiawah Island. He also has viewed footage of some other successes.

“It sort of lifted me a little bit,” McIlroy said. “It’s more than (watching the swing). It’s body language. It’s how you carry yourself. ... I think everyone sees when I walk when I’m playing well that I have that little bounce in my step. So I’m just trying to get that going again and trying to get that positive energy back.”

Whether it happens this week is anyone’s guess. But it is certain that it has been a long time since we’ve heard McIlroy talk about being “really excited” about golf.

“I’m sitting here as confident as I have been all year,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to getting going this week.”

• Yes, McIlroy recently got a haircut, with the sides and back trimmed short. That effectively means when wearing a cap he no longer looks like a Marx brother.

• The unpredictability of golf is reinforced weekly if not hourly. McIlroy goes into a funk. Mickelson wins on links courses in consecutive weeks. Woods goes more than five years without winning a major. David Duval disappears. Adam Scott closes with four consecutive bogeys at Royal Lytham. Eighteen different players, including 14 first-timers, win the last 20 majors because of increasing field depth.

The list goes on and on. And it extends to Shaun Micheel, winner of the PGA the last time it was at Oak Hill, in 2003. Not only was his victory a big surprise, so has been the aftermath. It’s his lone PGA Tour victory and at 44 he finds himself non-exempt on all tours.

“Had you told me that when I hoisted that trophy on Sunday night and I went back to my hotel, if somebody had whispered in my ear that you're going to become a non‑exempt player on the Tour and you're going to be a non‑exempt player on the Web.com Tour, I would have said you were crazy,” Micheel said here. “It's been frustrating.”

Shoulder surgery in 2008 didn’t help. Hence, he doesn’t swing the same. But he hasn’t felt sorry for himself and lost perspective.

“My form just doesn't function the way that I need it to,” he said. “But you know, I think nothing that's happened to me over the course of time is really unique in any way. I think a lot of guys, and even all of you (reporters) can maybe relate some personal stories that have maybe affected the way you do your work.”

• Well-conditioned Oak Hill is a positional rather than long course with graduated but difficult rough. Player after player talks about how difficult but fair it is, about how birdies and bogeys will be made, about how the setup isn’t designed to protect par as at a U.S. Open.

If that isn’t enough of a memo to the USGA, consider this:

“The great thing about the PGA Championship is we have never gotten caught up in what the under-par score is going to be to win,” PGA president Ted Bishop said.

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