McIlroy on journey to regain swing, finally finish Grand Slam

Patrons watch as Rory McIlroy chips to the third green during his practice round for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Patrons watch as Rory McIlroy chips to the third green during his practice round for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Rory McIlroy has embarked on what he calls “a journey.”

And perhaps it is just a mid-course correction in his distinguished 14-year career.

But in plain talk, the Irishman has lost touch with elements of his swing and at times this week, he has sounded like a student pilot attempting to bring in disabled plane.

“When you don’t understand why you’re hitting certain shots, you can become lost and you can start to think all sorts of stuff,” he said. “And I felt every time I was going to the range, I was trying something different.”

A standard story line over the past half-dozen Masters has been McIlory’s pursuit of the career Grand Slam. Only five players have done it and after McIlroy landed the British Open and PGA championship in 2014, it was ordained just a matter of time before he joined the club. His first major title, the U.S. Open at Congressional, came 10 years ago.

But there is some wonder as Masters play begins Thursday whether he even will be around for the weekend. He hasn’t won anywhere since the 2019 WG-HSBC Champions, a European Tour event. He has since gone 32 tournaments world-wide without a victory while his world ranking dropped from No. 1, which he had held off and on for 100 weeks, to currently No. 12.

Things got real during the Palmer Invitation last month, when McIlroy entered the final round trailing by three shots only to shoot a closing 76 to finish 10th. There followed a tumultuous showing at the Players Championship the following week, when he scored a quadruple-bogey 8 to end the first round and wound up missing the cut by 10 shots.

Shortly thereafter, he announced he was bringing back coach Pete Bowen, a 70-year-old Englishman who had first worked with McIlroy when he was a 13-year-old rising junior. McIlroy called it a “very tough choice” and specified his long-time coach, Michael Bannon, wasn’t being replaced. He referred to him as “part of the team.”

“It’s just an extra set of eyes to seeing a few things,” he said, “that I just felt bringing Pete in can only help.”

McIlroy suggested his troubles picked up last fall, when, inspired by Bryson DeChambeau’s power display at the last U.S. Open, he began working to add distance off the tee. This included speed training to increase clubhead velocity. Why would one of the PGA Tour’s most prodigious drivers seek even more distance? Good question.

But his swing did not respond positively. He began over-rotating, he said. His swing appeared flatter and longer. The more he mulled his situation, the less progress he saw.

“I’m actually getting away from a lot of the technical thoughts,” he said. “I’m actually going the other way. I’ve sort of simplified it down to just making the right body movements, instead of trying to get myself to get the club into certain positions. So if anything, I feel like I’ve simplified the whole process.”

As he recalibrates his swing, the process encouraged him to review other soft spots in his game. McIlroy freely admits not having an exceptional game around the green and continues to try to refine his wedge play.

“I’ve always thought the thing that makes me a great driver of the golf ball is also the thing that makes me not be as good with the wedges,” he said. “It’s a different action and it’s a different sequence of movements. But I’m working on it. I work on it hard. It might be a part of the game that doesn’t come easily to me or players like me.”

He has had enough success at the Masters, even without winning -- six top-10 finishes in 12 starts -- that returning here may have a calming effect. At 31, he senses the pursuit of the career slam seems less stressful -- “a little more relaxed,” he said -- than, say, 2015, when a Masters championship was all he lacked. Only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen have turned the trick and McIlroy admits he “would have loved to have done it at this point.”

“But for me to do that, I just have to go out and try to play four good rounds of golf on this golf course, which I’ve played a bunch of really good rounds on this golf course before. But just not four in a row.

“That’s the challenge for me. And if I can do that and get my head in the right place and feel like my game’s where it needs to be, then I have no doubt that I can, that I can put it all together.”

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