19th hole: Rory McIlroy tweaks mental approach to putting and reaps rewards

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19th hole: Rory McIlroy tweaks mental approach to putting and reaps rewards

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19th hole: Rory McIlroy tweaks mental approach to putting and reaps rewards

ORLANDO – There’s not much between despair and ecstasy in golf. If you ask Rory McIlroy, he might tell you the difference can be measured in as little as three putts. Not three of the many he made in winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but the three he made six days earlier, a couple of hours south of Bay Hill at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla.

He was with Brad Faxon, the PGA Tour veteran renowned as a Picasso with the putter. Their planned one-hour session went three hours and ended with a putting contest. First to five. The green was stimping 13. The wind was blowing 30. Faxon led 4-2.

“When you win Bay Hill this week, you have to tell everyone I beat you in a putting contest,” Faxon goaded him.

McIlroy drained three of his next four from 35 feet. The student gave the master a hug and said, “Now I’m going to say I beat Brad Faxon in a putting contest after I win Bay Hill this week.”

“I didn’t know whether he let me win just to give me a confidence boost, but we’ve joked about that all week,” McIlroy said in a quiet moment Sunday night after his win. “Maybe I can tell everyone now.”

Before he arrived in Orlando, the former World No. 1 was at a low ebb, despondent over yet another mediocre putting performance that led to an early departure from the Valspar Championship. That feeling was becoming as familiar to him as winning majors once was.

Even seemingly solid results disguised an issue.

His year began in the Middle East, finishing T-3 in Abu Dhabi and second in Dubai. He was a combined 40-under par in those two events, but six of those eight rounds showed negative returns in his detailed putting stats. He missed the cut in his PGA Tour season debut at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. His 39 putts in the second round included a humiliating five-putt. When he slammed the trunk at the Valspar, he had lost four strokes to the field with his putter.

McIlroy seemed in danger of becoming another Adam Scott, an admired ballstriker, immensely popular, but someone who struggles to close the deal at the business end of a hole. Tour pros who develop a fatalistic belief that their putts will never fall don’t win many majors, and McIlroy has been stuck on four for four years.

He arrived at Bay Hill ranked 124th in strokes gained: putting this season. He left after producing the best statistical performance of his professional career in that category. What changed?

“It’s a combination. The work I’ve done on my stroke has helped, but I think it’s just the mentality of not really caring whether it goes in or not,” he said. “If I hit a good putt, great. If it goes in, wonderful. If it doesn’t, I’ve done all that I can do. It’s a philosophical change, a psychological change in how I approached putting this week. That was the real difference.”

Faxon helped clear an artist’s head that had become overburdened with mechanical thoughts, a striking difference in how McIlroy approaches the rest of his game.

Feeling.

Once lost, it can be difficult to recapture.

“I’m trying to get back to feeling how I did as a kid, where your instinct takes over,” McIlroy said. “The last time I had freedom like this was probably 2014.”

He won two majors that year, a fact that won’t be lost on his rivals. By the time McIlroy’s final-hole birdie dropped – just the 100th putt he required for 72 holes – three other former major champions had reached out to Faxon.

In two weeks McIlroy will attempt to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters, which promises to be the most tantalizing tussle for a green jacket in years, with every princeling in the game rounding into form.

He left Bay Hill with much more than a trophy and $1.6 million. He takes with him the confidence that comes from having his greatest weakness turned into a potent weapon. The long-term value of that is – to borrow the slogan of the Arnold Palmer Invitational’s presenting sponsor – priceless. Gwk

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