With swing still a work in progress, Rory McIlroy rebounds from first-round triple to creep closer to Memorial lead


Michael Reaves

DUBLIN, Ohio — Despite winning the CJ Cup in South Carolina last fall and the Dubai Desert Classic in January, Rory McIlroy hasn’t felt comfortable with his golf swing in quite a while. Which explains a lot about his struggles in The Players and Masters, where he missed the cut, and why his T-7 at the PGA Championship two weeks ago wasn’t the confidence builder you might expect.

Bad habits have become ingrained. He finds a groove on the practice tee and can’t take it to the golf course. This is the No. 3 player in the world, folks. He’s trying to get a handle on things. Don’t expect too much from him.

The way he talked Friday at Muirfield Village Golf Club, you’d think McIlroy was out of the mix at the Memorial Tournament. But he’d be leading Jack Nicklaus’ invitational were it not for slapping his ball around for a triple bogey on the 18th hole Thursday that turned a promising round into a dyspeptic even-par 72.

McIlroy shook off that disaster and posted a four-under 68 Friday to find himself trailing Hideki Matsuyama by three strokes. A fine rebound. Well done. But pump the breaks on thinking the four-time major winner is back to his old self. He's not. At least not yet.

“If you've let your swing get to a certain place over the course of, say, six months, there's no way that you're going to work for two weeks and all of a sudden it's going to be where you want it to be,” he said after negating two bogeys with six birdies on a layout that was less fiery than the previous afternoon. “I think it's the smart way to do it, to just let it bed in over time. I'm not saying it will take six months to get it to where I want to, but it will certainly take longer than a week or two.”

McIlroy said he felt faults creeping in late last year. Which shows you the kind of game he can still produce to win twice despite the “struggles,” if you want to call them that.

“This is a process that will take … the swings that I make on the range compared to the swings I make out there, they're not the same,” said the 34-year-old from Northern Ireland. “They won't match up for a while. So it's just a matter of working little by little, sort of trying to do it every day that the feels become more and more comfortable.”

He looked fairly comfortable in the opening round, navigating a toasted layout until pushing his tee shot on 18 toward a fairway bunker. The ball ended up on the bank, leaving an awkward lie well above his feet, and he proceeded to butcher things further from there.

Then he birdied the opening hole Friday and all was right, well mostly, with the world.

“I felt good about everything that I did yesterday. I got one bad break on 18 with that ball finishing on the bank of the bunker,” McIlroy said. “So I really feel like I'm one shot out of leading this golf tournament. So again, I felt like I did a lot of really good things yesterday and I did a lot of good things right, so I can't let that one sort of unlucky break sort of hide the fact that everything else was working pretty well.”

We can talk about all the time McIlroy spent last year advocating for the PGA Tour as it counters the insurgency of the LIV Golf League, but he suggested that his lead role as a tour spokesman really isn’t the root cause of the problems he’s encountered.

“We have all been advocating for an off-season and there's certain reasons why guys want … it's very hard to try to play your best golf when you're really thinking about your golf swing,” he said. “So that off-season time would be nice to work on your mechanics and your fundamentals.

“I didn't really feel like I had the necessary time to do that; you want to take a little bit of time off over the holidays, get yourself back into it. I know it's been creeping in, but my reluctancy to work on it was more to do with the fact of how much golf we had coming up and just not really wanting to be thinking about my golf swing a ton.”

He’s thinking about it a ton now, however. And talking less about what’s going on in the golf world. You can’t get back to trying to conquer it if you’re constantly at the forefront of trying to mold it.

It’s funny to think that McIlroy is in the midst of rebuilding his game. It doesn’t look like it. But maybe that’s because he’s starting from a base far above just about everyone else.