Golf

Putting game betrays McIlroy . . . again

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Rory McIlroy needs to win one by finishing strong in the cauldron that is Sunday afternoons.

And soon.

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He might be only 21 and about the most mature, likable rising star in the world of sports, but if winning is learned behavior, then the reverse could be just as true.

And the young Northern Irishman, who has just two career wins in almost 100 tournaments since turning professional in 2007, is making a worrying habit of not closing down the stretch.

There are those in Europe who believe he’s the next Tiger Woods, but unless he starts converting third-round leads, he might just be the next Sergio Garcia, a ball-striking wizard who can’t get the putts to drop.

A week after his Zepplinesque implosion at Augusta — leading by four going into the final round he shot 80 — McIlroy blew another winning position in Malaysia over the weekend.

He’s now won only once — at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic — after holding at least a share of the third-round lead five times in his career.

McIlroy had a three-shot cushion with four holes to play in his delayed third round at the Malaysian Open, but two double bogeys on Sunday saw him finish two shots behind the winner, the impressive young Italian, Matteo Manassero.

McIlroy is a class act, and it was no surprise that his first Twitter entry after the loss was a tip of the hat to Manassero, who now has two professional wins before his 18th birthday.

“Well done, Manny! What a player for 17!!” McIlroy wrote.

McIlroy said after the round that he was “pretty disappointed” but called the experience “a good week,” especially given he was fresh from his Masters disappointment and had to fly 30 hours across the world to play.

And, in a sense, it was a good week, because the third-place finish has now catapulted him to seventh in the world rankings.

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“I started out really well and to shoot the scores I did considering the traveling is a pretty good effort,” he said.

“I'm proud of myself at how I picked myself up from last week and the way I came back on the back nine today."

All of that’s perfectly valid and true, but the fact remains he should’ve won the tournament.

He didn’t chop wood in the final round — he made seven birdies.

Seven birdies should’ve been enough to win.

But it wasn’t. All those circles on his card added up to only a 3-under-par 69 because McIlroy has a fatal flaw in his golf game.

He’s an erratic putter.

When he makes mistakes, as he did Sunday, he can’t count on his short game, especially his putter, to save him.

Indeed, as we saw at the Masters, the flatstick’s just as likely to bury him deeper in the morass.

For all that was made about his collapse around Amen Corner last week, the truth is that even after the triple-bogey debacle on the 10th, he hit two pure shots to have a 15-foot birdie look on the 11th, the toughest hole at Augusta National.

But he then 3-putted. On the 12th, the danger lies in the tee shot. But the young Ulsterman hit a fine approach, only to 4-putt from 20 feet.

McIlroy knows his Achilles' heel’s in his hands.

Literally.

“I lost a lot of confidence in my putting around the turn,” he admitted after the Masters.

“I was sort of second-guessing lines and second-guessing my speed, and on these greens you can't do that.”

It’s not the first time his putter’s betrayed him.

At the 2008 European Masters, McIlroy took a four-shot lead into the final round but let it slip down to one before missing a 4-footer for par on the last hole that would’ve won the tournament.

He then missed an 18-inch putt on the second playoff hole, handing Frenchman Jean-Francois Lucquin the victory.

Last year, McIlroy was tied for the lead at the PGA Championship with three holes to play but 3-putted the 15th.

He finished a shot out of the playoff won by Martin Kaymer over Bubba Watson.

Like a lot of players who rely on their hands — rather than rocking their shoulders — to putt, there are days when everything falls, such as last May when McIlroy shot a course-record 62 in the final round at Quail Hollow to become the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since Woods.

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But those days become the exception. Especially under pressure.

In Kaula Lumpur McIlroy took 34 putts in the third round and averaged 31 for the four days.

If he was on the US Tour, he’d rank 185th in putting for 2011, taking three more putts each round than category leader Luke Donald.

That’s 12 shots per tournament he’s spotting a great putter.

At this level, that’s just too many.

If he doesn‘t find a way to putt better, there will be more Sundays like this for McIlroy, who outdrove Manassero by at least 25 yards and hit his irons by and large closer to the pin, only to lose to a kid who putts as if he’s going to make 'em all.

And damned near does.

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