McIlroy's poor iron play leads to early exit

Rory McIlroy reacts after he lost his match to Shane Lowry during the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

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MARANA, Ariz. – Rory McIlroy was the only player on Dove Mountain’s driving range late in the afternoon on the eve of the WGC-Accenture Match Play. He looked like a player searching for answers, not one trying to ingrain a few more confident swings into his muscle memory before his second start of the year.

McIlroy, the recipient of simple instruction throughout his career, performed a few drills, pantomimed his desired swing positions and laid an alignment stick at his feet. Snow kept McIlroy from competing the next day, but when he finally teed off Thursday it was evident that he was still searching for the swing that led to five victories, including the PGA Championship, in 2012.

Poor iron play, especially a persistent blocked shot that sailed well right of target, sent the World No. 1 to a 1-down loss to Shane Lowry in the Match Play’s first round. Lowry has been a friend since childhood. The two dined together Tuesday evening at a local steak joint. Lowry betrayed McIlroy not with a kiss, but a deft short game. Two chip-ins, and par saves at the final two holes, gave Lowry a 1-up victory in their first-round tussle.

“I’m not going to lie: we didn’t play our best golf,” Lowry said. “But that’s match play and that’s the way it is. I’m happy to get the win.”

This was a career highlight for Lowry, one that will compare favorably to his victory as an amateur in his home country’s open championship, the Irish Open, in 2009. That was one of two European Tour victories for the 25-year-old. McIlroy’s performance here will quickly be forgotten if he can return to his winning ways. No one knows how long that will take, though.

McIlroy has played just three competitive rounds in 2013. There was that missed cut at Abu Dhabi, his debut with Nike clubs, before he arrived in the Arizona desert. He’s competing the next two weeks, at the Honda Classic and WGC-Cadillac. This three-week stretch will be a “good measuring stick,” he said in his pre-tournament news conference.

Victories will erase the questions. More struggles will only raise concerns about his new Nike sticks and his sporadic playing schedule. McIlroy has been through this before, though. He missed three cuts in four starts last May and June, leading to questions from European press about his priorities and off-course pursuits. There was no criticism when he won the PGA Championship and two FedEx Cup playoff events, though.

McIlroy is going through a similar stretch now. His three starts before this week resulted in two missed cuts and a victory at the European Tour’s grand finale, the DP World Tour Championship. There is no cut at a World Golf Championship, but this was another poor performance. Even McIlroy, who was 4 over after seven holes, admitted, “I probably would have lost by more if I had played someone else. ... It wasn’t a great quality match.”

McIlroy said he drove the ball better than at Abu Dhabi, a promising sign, but his timing was off with his iron game. He appeared to be aligned right of his target and trying to draw shots back to the hole with his trademark right-to-left ball flight. A late release explained the pushed shots, though. Even his tee shot at the par-3 16th, which landed 10 feet from the hole, appeared headed well right of the green before it began drawing aggressively. His birdie there pulled him to 1-down with two holes remaining. Par saves on the final two holes gave Lowry the victory, though.

McIlroy described his swing troubles as a “timing” problem, and said he still feels rusty. “It shouldn’t be a lot of work,” he said. He’ll practice this weekend to prepare for his title defense at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

McIlroy was 1 up after Lowry’s three-putt bogey at No. 9. McIlroy lost the next hole after pushing his approach shot and chunking his chip shot. Then Lowry chipped in on Nos. 11 and 12. The first hole-out resulted in a halve on the par-5. He had to take a drop at the par-3 12th after his ball came to rest near grandstands behind the green. His flop shot fell into the hole on its last roll.

Lowry won the next hole, a par 5, after hitting a fairway wood to 4 feet and having his eagle putt conceded after McIlroy missed a short birdie putt. Lowry lost the 14th after another three-putt, but McIlroy's ugly play on the next hole returned Lowry to 2 up. Lowry found the fairway on the short par-4 15th, and McIlroy's ball came to rest next to a bush. McIlroy hit the next shot left-handed, rolling his ball into a greenside bunker. He conceded the hole after blading his bunker shot over the green.

McIlroy made a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th to go 1 down. He two-putted from about 50 feet on No. 17 before Lowry hit a touchy chip from behind the green to a couple of feet. Lowry got up-and-down on the final two holes to close out McIlroy. Both players hit into the same greenside bunker right of the 18th green. McIlroy hit first and nearly holed his bunker shot, for a conceded par. Lowry blasted to 4 feet, then made the putt for victory.

Lowry will face the winner of the Rickie Fowler-Carl Pettersson match in the second round. Pettersson is 1 up, with the players on the 18th hole. Regardless of what happens Friday, Lowry will leave here with the pride that comes with beating the world’s top-ranked player.

“It’s definitely a day I’m going to remember,” Lowry said. “I’m sure after a few weeks or a couple of months I will slag Rory over it.”

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