DORAL, Fla. – As if quitting in the middle of a golf tournament didn’t bring Rory McIlroy enough attention, it might not let up on the golf course.
McIlroy has been going through damage control the last five days after his abrupt departure when he was 7-over par through eight holes and decided to call it quits at the Honda Classic. After an apology to Sports Illustrated, he faced the news media Wednesday and took all the blame.
“I actually think in the long run, Friday will be a blessing in disguise,” he said, referring to the day he withdrew last week. “It was like it just sort of released a valve, and all that pressure that I’ve been putting on myself just went away. And I was like, ‘Just go out and have fun. It’s not life or death out there. It’s only a game.’
“I had sort of forgotten that this year.”
The world’s No. 1 player won’t be able to escape the spotlight when the Cadillac Championship gets under way today at Doral.
This World Golf Championship tends to group the top players in the world ranking, meaning McIlroy gets to spend the opening two rounds with Tiger Woods and Luke Donald. And while McIlroy’s behavior was questioned last week, it’s his game that has been the most curious.
He played with Woods when both made their 2013 debut in Abu Dhabi, and the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland had rounds of 75-75 to miss the cut. Woods also missed the cut that week because of a two-shot penalty, though he flew halfway around the world the following week and won at Torrey Pines for his 75th career win.
McIlroy had a sloppy performance on Dove Mountain and lost in the first round of the Match Play Championship, and then made it through only 26 holes at PGA National. He lost track of the hours he put in at The Bear’s Club over the weekend, hopeful that he can sort out the problems in his swing.
His expectations for the week?
“Just work on my swing,” he said as he walked out the door after his news conference. “Try to get my swing back.”
Woods is coming off a mediocre performance in the Honda Classic, failing to break par in any of the four rounds on his way to a tie for 37th. He is a three-time winner at Doral and had never finished out of the top 10 until he withdrew after 11 holes last year with tightness in his left Achilles tendon.
Woods can appreciate the scrutiny McIlroy faces. He also had some sound advice.
“We play week after week,” Woods said after nine holes of practice on the Blue Monster. “Once one week ends, you have to move on the next one. And we’re on a different venue and different golf course. For me over the years, I’ve just put it aside and moved on, whether it was good or bad, whether I won the tournament or missed the cut, whatever it may be. You move on and get ready for the next event.”
With each week, the Masters gets closer.
Only a dozen players in the 65-man field at Doral are not yet in the Masters, so it’s an important week for the likes of Geoff Ogilvy, Fredrik Jacobson, Richard Sterne and Charles Howell III, all of whom are trying to establish themselves in the top 50 when the final cutoff arrives at the end of the month.
And for McIlroy, it’s a matter of sorting out his game.
He described his swing change as trying to put it back the way it was last summer, when he went on a tear at the end of the year by winning the PGA Championship for his second major, two FedEx Cup playoff events and the season finale in Dubai to capture the money title on the two biggest tours.
He is getting close.
“We found it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting comfortable with it. When I take the club away and try to put it in the right position, it feels very alien to me right now. But the more reps I do, the more comfortable I’m going to get with it.”
Even so, he is not inclined to add another tournament to his schedule. If he were to play poorly at Doral, McIlroy would consider playing Bay Hill. Otherwise, he would stick to his plan of making the Houston Open is only other stop before Augusta.
Another example of the Masters on the horizon was Phil Mickelson, who made a detour to Augusta on Tuesday to play with Keegan Bradley.
Mickelson was dominant when he won the Phoenix Open, though he didn’t contend his next two weeks at Pebble Beach and Riviera, and then he took the last two weeks off.
“The first week I didn’t touch a club and this last week I’ve been practicing pretty hard,” Mickelson said. “And I’ve had some good rounds and I’m optimistic, but you just never know until you get in competition, and today at Doral, this is playing as tough as I’ve seen this golf course play. The rough is thicker and denser than I’ve seen — and longer — and it’s going to have a premium on getting the ball in the fairway.”
Woods, meanwhile, is trying to end a drought in these World Golf Championships. He has won 16 of them, but none since Firestone in late summer of 2009. His game has been all over the place — missed cut, win, middle-of-the-pack — but Doral is familiar turf.
“I’ve liked the venue. I like being here, and this course and this tournament have been good to me over the years,” he said.
He might not recognize the course much longer. Donald Trump bought the resort last year and will start tearing it up on Monday after the tournament is over, adding length and more water features in what The Donald describes as a “brand new course.”