The other week, Rory McIlroy said during the WGC-Cadillac Championship, referring to his golf game, “There’s no need to panic.” In his first two starts on U.S. soil thus far in 2015, he missed the cut at the Honda Classic and then notched a back-door top-10 (T9) finish at Doral — but he didn’t play anywhere up to the world’s no. 1’s high standards. After the slow start to the season, McIlroy saw progress in his game in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
In the interim — when he wasn’t playing golf with Tom Brady at Augusta National — his swing coach Michael Bannon paid him a visit last week to help McIlroy work on his game.
“It was more just my feelings and what — because on camera it actually didn’t look too bad, so it was more that we got the TrackMan out and worked a couple days on that analyzing some numbers, as well, and what it could be,” said McIlroy in his pre-tournament presser on Wednesday afternoon. “We just figured a couple little things out over the few days and it feels so much better.”
Well, as he hadn’t been able to do in his first two starts, on Thursday in the first round of Arnie’s tourney, Rory managed to take his fine ballstriking from the practice tee to a competitive round. McIlroy hit 17 of 18 greens and found 10 of 14 fairways. Unfortunately, he needed 34 putts (To be fair, the greens at Bay Hill are a bit slow and rough in spots this year, but they’re tearing them up this summer for a renovation.)
McIlroy’s only real massive slip-up with his irons came on the sometimes tricky par-5 16th hole. After hitting his drive through the fairway, he had a weird lie in the first cut that was up against the rough. Regardless, he still tried to go for it in two and pulled the shot into the creek guarding the green. McIlroy dropped in the fairway and his pitch had too much spin and whirled back down the hill to 35 feet. He ended up two-putting for a disappointing bogey.
“Little disappointed with especially the 16th hole but positive signs and get out there again tomorrow and try and shoot something lower,” said Rory.
Despite his poor lie, laying up was never an option he considered.
“I had 180-something to the front,” he explained. “It was nothing. It wasn’t a great lie but because the ball was below my feet I was expecting it to squirt out a little right. I was aiming on the hazard line and thinking it was going to come to the right and came out straight.”
He made up for the minor botch on his scorecard on the par-4 18th, where he knocked it approach to 14 feet and rolled in the putt for birdie — one of the few that actually dropped for him in the first round at Bay Hill.
“It could have been much better,” said McIlroy, who is currently tied for 32nd. “I was just trying to stay as patient as possible. I know I was hitting a lot of greens, giving myself a lot of chances.
“But I guess when the greens are like they are you’re going to have to stay patient because you’re going to hit good putts that don’t go in and I felt like I didn’t really trust myself, you know, with some of the putts that are there today, I didn’t trust the reads and just was sort of in two minds quite a lot, so try and get a little better mentally over the putts over the next couple days and you never know.”
Overall, McIlroy was pleased with his round of two-under 70 in his first start at this event, but he wished that he had scored better on the par-5s — he played them at a mediocre even par.
“It’s the sort of golf course that if you can play the par-5s well, and there’s a little bit of strategy involved for the rest of the holes,” said Rory. “It’s not like anyone is going super low right there.
“If you can play the par-5s at all it’s a big advantage to play them. Even par today wasn’t what I was looking for. Again, hopefully I can do better on those over the next few days.”
He also acknowledged there were still weaknesses in his game that he needs to tidy up for Friday.
“I hit it sort of pin high right on 4 and didn’t get it up and down,” said McIlroy. “You hit it to the front of the green on 12, didn’t get it up and down.
“It’s just tidying up that area and the short game and if I can do that and just be a little bit more efficient where I’m putting myself in positions to score and opportunities to make birdies and that’s just what I need to cleanup a little bit.”
But, more important, he saw progress with his form as the Masters quickly approaches in less than three weeks time.
“Even I recognized that I hit a lot of greens,” he said. “Just a lot more quality shots than at Doral. Conditions are obviously a little better, as well. Seeing signs of my game that I like and another three days of hopefully solid golf and try and get into contention and that will put me in a good place going into Augusta.”
Even better news, McIlroy, who had troubles moving the ball right-to-left at Doral, felt like he had made headway on shaping his shots.
“I was turning the ball over from right-to-left much easier,” he said. “Just more in control of my ball flight, more in control of the shot shape I wanted. Lot of stuff that we (my coach and I) worked on, you know, I saw a lot of positives there today.”
After McIlroy finished his media rounds, he was whisked off with an official as the world no. 1 had been randomly selected for a drug test. “I have to go pee in a cup,” he said as he walked away from the scrum of reporters.