Hate to be Rude: McIlroy turns to friends for answers

Rory McIlroy during a practice round at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

Ben Hogan used to say that the driver, not the putter, is the most important club in the bag because it sets everything up. Decades later, the Hawk apparently gets no argument from slumping Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy tees off in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Thursday winless this year and having missed the cut in three of his last five starts worldwide. Statistics say his primary problem has been short game, for he ranks 183rd in scrambling at 51 percent (down from 33rd and 60.2 percent last year) and 132nd in strokes-gained putting, down from 82nd.

McIlroy, however, says driving is the primary culprit, even though he’s hitting a higher percentage of fairways (58.98 percent) than last year (56.61). He’s also hitting a higher percentage of greens in regulation (68.57 to 66.36).

Apparently numbers lie, at least in terms of how McIlroy perceives his tee ball.

“The thing I’m disappointed with most is driving,” McIlroy said Wednesday from Akron, Ohio, site of the WGC-Bridgestone. “I haven’t hit as many fairways, and that has killed my scoring ability.”

McIlroy has had to adjust to a new driver and ball after signing an equipment contract with a different manufacturer for a reported $100 million. Opinions vary on the impact that has had.

What’s certain is that he isn’t the player he was last year when he won four Tour titles and the Player of the Year award thanks to a strong finishing kick. He’s hoping for a similar climb this year, starting at Firestone, where he has three consecutive top-10 finishes.

Interestingly, though his confidence has been low during the past couple of months, McIlroy maintained Wednesday that he feels better about his game now than he did a year ago. The Northern Irishman missed cuts in four of five starts through the 2012 U.S. Open and tied for 60th at the Open Championship. A tie for fifth at Firestone got him on the right track, and he won the next week at the PGA Championship, then picked off two FedEx Cup playoff titles.

“Last year I was searching going into Akron,” he said. “This year I don’t feel I’m searching for as many answers. It definitely feels close. It’s a matter of it clicking in place.”

After missing the Open Championship cut at Muirfield, he worked on his swing with coach Michael Bannon and played a few rounds with buddies back home in Northern Ireland. Bannon’s TrackMan, a golf radar device that measures aspects such as club delivery and launch angle, gave McIlroy instant feedback about his motion. Golf with his pals, though, might have been more beneficial.

“We play so much golf on Tour, you sort of forget why you play the game,” McIlroy said. “You play the game because you love it. (Playing with them was) something I really enjoyed. I have an attitude change.”

What’s more, McIlroy worked on his putting Tuesday and Wednesday in Akron with putting coach Dave Stockton, the winner of two PGA Championships. McIlroy left those sessions saying he felt in a “better place” with his stroke.

“I feel I have everything I need to go forward,” he said.

Yet he wants to move on and play six of the next eight weeks without thoughts of TrackMan and mechanics. He also hopes to play with more of an even keel, saying his mood swings from down to excited after shots haven’t helped.

“When things haven’t gone your way, you think more about technique,” McIlroy said. “I need to get back to playing golf again and seeing the shots and hitting them and visualizing and not thinking about mechanics.”

His next two months will be telling if not important. If his plan works, he’ll climb. If not, everyone, including McIlroy, might have more questions than answers.

• The refrain from Tiger Woods has been the same of late:“I couldn’t get the speed of the greens down.” We’ve heard that from every tournament he has failed to win since March, notably at the Masters, Memorial and the two summer major Opens.

And we might be hearing it again next week, if his comments Wednesday were any indication. Woods on Tuesday played Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y., site of next week’s PGA Championship, and didn’t like what he saw on the putting surfaces.

“The greens are spotty, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do because they were running just under 9 on the Stimp (Stimpmeter),” Woods said from Akron. “They don’t have much thatch to them, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do for the tournament and how much they’re able to speed them up with kind of a lack of grass.”

Greens at major championships normally read 12 or 13 at major championships. And Woods typically putts better on fast greens than he does on slow ones.

• Phil Mickelson has won a major (2006 Masters) with two drivers. He has won a major (2013 Open Championship) and almost another (2013 U.S. Open) with no driver. He has won a major (’13 Open Championship) with five wedges.

That’s all unprecedented stuff. Which begs the question of what other odd bag configuration he could win with?

Two putters? Two 7-irons? No 7-iron? Thirteen clubs? Don’t laugh. Never be surprised by the mad scientist, win or lose.

• Inbee Park, of course, goes for her fourth consecutive major title this week in the Ricoh Women’s British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews. No one, male or distaff division, has won four consecutive professional majors in the same season.

Because the LPGA this year added the Evian Championship in September as a fifth major, there has been recent debate about whether a victory this week would give Park a Grand Slam.

Some say no, that you must win them all, like in bridge. Some say yes, that a Grand Slam historically has meant four in golf and baseball and at Denny’s (eggs, pancakes, sausage and bacon).

Mike Whan, the LPGA commissioner, makes sense when saying Park would have a Grand Slam if she succeeds this week and a Super Slam if she bags all five.

I say four in a row is good enough for me, particularly since they are the first and established four. Call it a Grand Slam or an Unprecendented Slam or an Out of the Park Inbee Park Slam or whatever, but let’s not diminish the incredible achievement by getting caught up in terminology.

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