Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
MARANA, Ariz. – Rory McIlroy put a new putter in his bag and a new shaft in his driver.
He has no way of knowing whether that means his second tournament of the year will last any longer than his first one.
The world’s No. 1 player made a big splash last month at the Abu Dhabi Championship in more ways than he imagined. He was introduced as Nike’s latest client, complete with a laser show and high expectations, only to miss the cut in his debut.
Next up is the Match Play Championship, which will start Wednesday with McIlroy as the top seed.
“I was packing my bags the other night, and I’m thinking, ‘How many shirts did I bring? How many pairs of pants?’ Yeah, it’s one of those weeks where you’ve just got to try and get through every round, and you face different opposition every day.”
McIlroy reached the championship match a year ago, losing to Hunter Mahan.
So much has changed since then. He has risen to No. 1 in the world, won another major at the PGA Championship by a record eight shots, and then really drew attention to himself with a Nike deal said to be worth upward of $20 million a year.
After one tournament that lasted only two rounds, the skeptics included six-time major champion Nick Faldo. He said it was “dangerous” to change equipment. Speaking from his own experience a generation ago, Faldo said that while the specifications can be duplicated, that doesn’t take into account the feel of the club, the sound it makes and the confidence that gets developed.
“Nick Faldo doesn’t know how I feel over the golf shot, and I don’t know how he felt,” McIlroy said. “Buy 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.”
He will open against Shane Lowry, whom he has known since they were juniors playing Irish golf events. McIlroy will try to avoid becoming the third No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round in the last four years.
At stake is getting more rounds under his belt on the road to the Masters.
McIlroy has played only two rounds of competition dating to his win in the season-ending event on the PGA European Tour. He is not worried about his form before Augusta, realizing that he still has three more tournaments after Match Play – the Honda Classic and Cadillac Championship the next two weeks in south Florida, then the Houston Open at the end of March.
And no, he’s not worried about his new clubs.
McIlroy switched back to his old Scotty Cameron putter in the second round of Abu Dhabi, though the results didn’t improve.
He had Nike make him another putter which is six grams heavier in the head and has a new shaft. He is using the same driver, only the shaft isn’t trimmed as much to give him a little better control.
Lee Westwood, who was No. 1 last year when he lost to McIlroy in the semifinals, doesn’t understand all the fuss. He was asked about Faldo’s comments and whether getting the feel with a new driver, golf ball and putter could take time.
“It will, it might, and everybody will blow it out of all proportion, won’t they?” Westwood said. “We all change equipment quite regularly out here, and he’s done that. I’ve changed the ball three times this year already, and drivers a couple of times. It’s no different. He’s just changed manufacturers, which you get used to one manufacturer and working with their people, and then you have to work with another manufacturer and different people. Maybe they don’t know your game quite as well.
“It’s not my problem, is it?” he said with a grin. “I smashed my drivers last week. I’m trying to find one for me. Rory’s ball and driver and clubs are down here on my priority list, so it’s not something I’ve thought about too much.”
Given the unpredictable nature of match play, this week might not be the best measure of a player’s game. McIlroy is comfortable with where he is, and if nothing else, he certainly is rested.
After missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, he went to the French Alps with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, then spent some time in Monaco before going to Florida to work.
“I’m actually much happier with how I’m swinging the club,” he said. “The clubs were performing fine in Abu Dhabi, it was just the fact that I wasn’t swinging at my best. But I did a lot of good work with Michael (Bannon) over the past 10 days, and I feel like I’ve turned a corner with my swing. I’ve got it back on track, and that’s ultimately what’s going to help me play better.”