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MARANA, Ariz. – For certain, World No. 1 Rory McIlroy is not tired. He has played but two competitive rounds since Nov. 25. He has been hanging out with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, in places such as the French Alps and Monaco and south Florida. He has been, well, chillin’ like a villain, as some his age like to say.
“It was nice to get away … and not be in that spotlight or have the attention so much,” McIlroy said.
So rest is not a problem as the 23-year-old heads into his first 2013 U.S. start at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship here. Rust may be an issue, but McIlroy doesn’t anticipate that either, for he says 10 days of work with coach Michael Bannon have sorted out a swing that produced 75-75 and a missed cut last month in Abu Dhabi.
“I feel like I’ve turned a corner with my swing,” he said Tuesday at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club. “I’ve got it back on track.”
McIlroy, of course, showed up at Abu Dhabi with new equipment after signing a lucrative, multiyear endorsement contract with Nike worth a reported $20 million or more per year. He made it a point Tuesday to say the new clubs were fine overseas but the motion wasn’t.
Since then, McIlroy has changed putters and tweaked his driver, putting in a different shaft that isn’t as tip stiff and adding 6 grams to the head. So far, so good in practice.
We’ll find out in the coming weeks how well and how quickly McIlroy transitions into the new sticks. As you may have read here, none other than six-time major winner Nick Faldo last month called McIlroy’s equipment switch “dangerous” because the feel is different, particularly with the ball, driver and putter.
Faldo spoke from experience, saying he regrets switching from the Mizuno irons he used to win all of his majors. Hence, he said he would have advised the game’s top player to stick with stuff he rode to No. 1 and fill the earnings vacuum with various non-endemic contracts.
McIlroy figured he would be criticized if he didn’t play well at Abu Dhabi, a week full of buzz surrounding his new deal and his pairing with fellow swoosh promoter Tiger Woods. As a result, the prodigy from Northern Ireland said he put too much pressure on himself and wasn’t as prepared as he is now.
“Nick Faldo doesn’t know how I feel over the golf shot, and I don’t know how he felt,” McIlroy said here. “But my guess is he was a little more analytically minded than I am. I try and keep things as simple as possible. If I see the ball going in the direction that I want in the flight that I want, then I’m happy. It feels good, and hopefully I can show that to everyone this week.”
Englishman Lee Westwood, a former No. 1, said such an equipment change “might” or “might not” be an issue and brought up the likelihood of the matter being blown out of proportion. Thing is, Westwood said, most players change equipment regularly and still get along nicely.
So, as we wait for time to tell, McIlroy prepares for his first-round match Wednesday against a decade-long friend, Shane Lowry of Ireland. McIlroy played on the same Irish amateur team as Lowry for a few years and was there to spray champagne when his friend won the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur.
“It’s pretty cool to think where we’ve come from,” McIlroy said.
Lowry, as you might imagine, is highly excited about competing on a world stage against a No. 1 and a friend with whom he sometimes plays practice rounds. He says the people back home can’t wait, either.
“If I beat Rory tomorrow,” Lowry said, “it would be one of the greatest stories of my career so far. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Well, he could lose feel in his hands, for the weather forecast calls for a high of 52 degrees, rain and wind Wednesday. Teeing off just past noon, though, they figure to get more warmth than those in the first match, at 7:25 a.m.
“Guys in the morning as going to be like icicles on the way in,” McIlroy said.
As you may recall, a month after he won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes, McIlroy went to the Open Championship and expressed displeasure with playing in inclement weather. His comments raised a few eyebrows, particularly since he grew up playing in the tough conditions of Northern Ireland.
Now, he says this of going out in bad weather: “I wouldn’t say I embrace it, but I put up with it.”
Lowry sounded more amenable to the idea of mixing it up in rain, cold and wind. Perhaps such an outlook could help him.
“I don’t particularly mind,” Lowry said. “I’ve been playing in that for the last couple of weeks, so I’m actually quite used to it.”