Memphis a cure for McIlroy's blues
He would never say it.
He is far too polite and savvy to utter the words out loud. But as Rory McIlroy put on a ball-striking clinic Friday at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, it was easy to imagine a pop-up bubble over his head with the words, "Hey, remember me? I know you've been preoccupied with Tiger Woods, but I am the guy who will be defending next week at the U.S. Open.
"I'm also the guy with one win, three runner-ups, a third, and another fifth-place finish in 10 starts this year. I've been the No.1 player in the world twice since that Woods guy, and if I win this week I'll be the favorite in San Francisco."
Of course, McIlroy was a lot more gracious after shooting a 65 at TPC Southwind to take a one-shot lead into the weekend.
He needed to be.
After three consecutive missed cuts, the man who was the No.1-ranked player in the world in March had been looking a little lost.
Last week in Dublin, Ohio, he shot 71 on Thursday with a quadruple bogey, and followed it up with a 79 where he, at times, appeared dejected and disinterested.
It was his second Friday 79 in as many weeks: the other coming at Wentworth in the European Tour's flagship event, the European PGA Championship. Before that, he shot 72-76 at TPC Sawgrass to go home early from the Players Championship.
"I think, to be honest, I took my eye off the ball a little bit," he said in London before leaving the gounds at Wentworth. "I feel like I'm putting the work in, but maybe my practice hasn't been as focused."
The scuttlebutt was that McIlroy had become complacent after reaching World No.1, winning twice and never being out of the top-five between the first of December and the middle of March. He had a disappointing weekend at Augusta (77-76 on Saturday and Sunday at the Masters), but bounced back to finish second in a playoff to Rickie Fowler at Quail Hollow in Charlotte where McIlroy won his first PGA Tour event.
But there were stories of him enjoying himself a bit too much: playing fun-loving host to a cadre of friends. And, of course, there's the tabloid love affair with tennis star Caroline Wozniaki, a year-long courtship that has keep them both busy with things other than their games.
"I remember when I was 23 and had an attractive girlfriend," Luke Donald, who supplanted McIlroy at No.1, said last week. "I would take my eye off the ball sometimes, as well. You can't blame him."
Compounding matters for McIlroy was Tiger's comeback win at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus' signature event. Not only was the victory emphatic and pure Tiger – a chip-in from an impossible lie on 16 and a birdie on the 18th – but it was also historic, moving Tiger into a tie with Jack on the all-time wins list with 73.
Just like that, in the fickle world of professional sports McIlroy was yesterday's news.
A good weekend in Memphis could change things. The 65 moved McIlroy to 7-under, one shot clear of J.B. Holmes, Jeff Maggart and Kevin Stadler. But it could have easily been a 60, and should have been a 63. He missed two three footers, and had a so-so putting day on the other 16 holes. His final two birdie putts were from two feet and four feet (the first coming after missing a three-footer for eagle on the par-five 16th).
"I felt like that was the best round of golf I've played in a while," McIlroy said. "It's nice to see my name on that part of the leaderboard. It's nice to be through to the weekend obviously, but it's even nicer to be leading and have a great chance."
Nicer still, although he wouldn't say it, is to be hitting on all cylinders again a week before defending his U.S. Open title.
"For the time being," he said. "My mind is focused on trying to win this golf tournament."
If he keeps his eye on the ball – literally as well as metaphorically – he has a very good chance of doing just that, not just this week, but next week as well.