PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Ninety minutes south of PGA National Resort & Spa, questions once abounded about whether there were enough basketballs for the Miami Heat’s Big Three. How’d that turn out? To wit, anyone jumping off the Rory McIlroy bandwagon better look before they leap.
It wouldn’t be a wise decision, despite McIlroy having missed the cut in his first start and gotten bounced out of the first round of last week’s World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship.
McIlroy is still the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking and arrived Tuesday at The Honda Classic as the defending champion.
The only difference between this year and last? A new bag of equipment and some faults seeping into his swing. Those are no small items on the checklist, but there’s reasoning behind the wrinkles.
For one, McIlroy has played exactly three rounds of competitive golf -- unless you want to count the 36 holes he played against Tiger Woods at nearby Medalist on Sunday. “We thought we’d have our own Match Play final,” joked McIlroy, who halved the two 18s on Woods’ home track.
An equipment change and loose swings are no laughing matter, but in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world we need to remember all McIlroy has done is play three competitive rounds. That's less than most people on the other side of the television.
“It's still an adjustment period,” McIlroy said of his new Nike equipment. “It's more about how I'm swinging the club. That's the real concern.”
It was the popular concern last year, too, when McIlroy missed three straight cuts and some speculated his high-profile relationship with Caroline Wozniacki was somehow at the root of it.
How’d that turn out? McIlroy solved his swing issues, won a second career major by eight shots (again) and had to buy a new house here just so he’d have somewhere to put all his hardware from the awards season.
McIlroy’s early 2013 struggles haven’t been for lack of effort. For one, he had a small amount of time to adjust to 14 entirely new clubs. For another, there’s a certain acquired comfort that goes with switching sticks and the only thing that provides it is time.
“When you first switch it’s important to get a lot of rounds early in the year,” said Stewart Cink, who went from Nike to TaylorMade in the offseason. “How does it react out of the rough? How does it react when hitting low shots out of the trees? What about when you need to fade or draw it? You need to have that in the memory bank and it needs to be in competition.”
To that point, when Cink turned up in Hawaii for his season-opener, he found himself hitting shots he wasn’t exactly comfortable with and missed the cut. A week later, he tied for 10th.
“If you don’t get a lot of rounds, if you see some things you don’t like, they can start to seep into your swing,” Cink said. “Some guys haven’t played a lot this year.”
Specifically, McIlroy, who all of a sudden found himself with his own bad habits. Chief among them was the club getting too far out on the way back and too inside on the way in. That left him to try to use his hands to save the swing. If the timing isn’t perfect, his caddie might as well camp out in the left rough -- or worse.
McIlroy put in some extra time with swing coach Michael Bannon, who he has brought across the pond with him for the next couple of weeks, and he hopes it will start showing in the results.
“It’s a little bit mental, but it was more physical (with my swing),” McIlroy said of his struggles.
More golf will help, too.
McIlroy had a shorter-than-usual offseason with a busy stretch of tournament play that didn’t conclude until the end of November, which meant less rest, which put more pressure on him to adapt to the new equipment by his season debut last month in Abu Dhabi, which meant a lack of familiarity.
“The ball was the easiest thing,” McIlroy said. “The biggest thing was finding a driver that suited me and I feel like I've got one now that really works. I just need tournament rounds to get that confidence in it.”
As Cink says, players of Mclroy’s ilk are so good they could play with a baseball bat if you give them enough time.
McIlroy has a similar philosophy, and a logical one at that.
“I'm only two tournaments into the season,” he said. “I've still got more 20 to go.”