PGA TOUR

Why a dejected Rory McIlroy needs to go in a different direction to find the missing spark that will end his seven year major drought

By Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy might have been with Michael Bannon since he was eight but he will now work with Englishman Pete Cowen as he bids to end his seven-year Major drought.

First reported by the Daily Telegraph, the Holywood star has told fellow professionals that his desire “to go in a different direction” will see him take on the Sheffield master professional as he battles to get back to winning ways.

McIlroy’s team confirmed the news late on Monday, telling Golfweek and ESPN via text: “Pete is an addition to Rory’s performance team.”

According to sources on tour, It was common knowledge in tour circles last week that Cowen had become a member of team McIlroy with the Sheffield coach tasked with trying to help McIlroy win the Masters in 19 days’ time and become just the sixth male player to complete the career Grand Slam.

How much involvement Bannon (62) will have going forward, if any, remains to be seen. But having coached McIlroy since he was eight, then been persuaded to give up his club job at Bangor to travel with McIlroy full-time in 2012, a permanent split would be a major surprise.

Cowen, who worked with McIlroy and Shane Lowry as a consultant to the GUI in 2004-5, was asked by McIlroy to give his opinion on his swing during the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players and the pair worked together for two days early last week.

Bannon steered McIlroy to four major wins in four years between 2011 and 2014 but he has been unable to travel as frequently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting McIlroy to consult Butch Harmon last year.

McIlroy confessed he was “dejected” after a poor final round performance at Bay Hill but while he said he was “maybe looking to go in a different direction”, he denied at The Players that he was thinking of personnel changes.

“Michael knows my swing better than anyone knows it, inside out.” said McIlroy.

His missed cut at Sawgrass appears to have convinced him otherwise and after falling to 11th in the world, his worst ranking for three years, a radical change is not unexpected.

Bannon was with McIlroy in Abu Dhabi in January and said: “I haven't been able to see Michael that much over the last few months because of COVID and I thought I would take advantage of being in Vegas and seeing Butch. But Michael is here this week and he worked with me the week before Christmas, so we started to see a lot more of each other and that's been great, as well. Michael knows my swing better than anyone knows it, inside out.

“It's great to have him here and it's great that things are sort of slowly getting back to normal where I'll be able to see him more regularly this year, and I think that will really help.”

“I need something, I need a spark, I need something and I just don’t seem to have it.. maybe looking to go in a different direction”

He went on to play the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, finishing tied 16th despite struggling on the poa annua greens.

“I'm seeing some good signs in my golf, but still some things I need to work on,” he said.

He played the Waste Management Phoenix Open the following week, finishing tied 13th thanks to a closing 64 but still sounded less than happy with his game.

Michael Bannon at his first Masters Tournament with Rory McIlroy in 2009

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Rory McIlroy. Photo by Golffile

“I'm going to get the plan perfecter out, that little machine I have, and work on that,” he said. “I'm getting way too steep in the downswing and hitting a lot of pulls and a lot of sort of weak cuts.

“So I'll work on that, try to get the club more out in front of me on the way back and try to shallow it a little bit on the way down,” he said. “And then just a bunch of putting. Yeah, I'll work hard next week. Got a week off and four in a row coming up, so it was nice to end, go into a week off playing like I did today, but I still got a lot of work to do.”

He went on to miss his first cut since The Open at Royal Portrush in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club, finishing near the back of the field after rounds of 73 and 76, then reappeared for the WGC Workday Championship at the Concession and tied for sixth, revealing he’d worked so hard before Riviera that he was unprepared to play.

“ I certainly didn’t mean like a change of personnel per see... more a change in philosophy... maybe going in a slightly different direction

“It's funny, it's going to sound really weird, I worked so hard the week before Riviera in that week off, but I felt so unprepared to play, if that makes sense,” he said. “I stood on the range for hours a day hitting golf balls and working on my swing, but didn't play golf. Didn't chip, didn't putt, didn't do any of the things that you need to do to shoot scores.

“So even though I worked hard and worked on some stuff, I feel like it's sort of like clockwork. I have these weeks where I want to work on some things and fix some things and I try to cram everything in in the space of a week when it's probably something that should take two or three months to iron out. So it's just one of those weeks where, like -- I went to Riviera after feeling like I worked hard but was completely unprepared because I had sort of neglected sort of all other aspects of the game.”

He got to the venue on Tuesday and worked hard in the build up, opening with a 69.

“Yesterday afternoon I grinded,” he said. "I had a long day. I got to the course yesterday at 7:30 and left at 5:30, so it was a 10-hour day. I slept well last night. I needed to put some work in. I was dreadful last week at Riviera. Put some work in and it's starting to feel a little bit better. I felt my tee-to-green game today was a lot better than it was over the last few days. I'll probably hit some balls first, I feel like I've got a decent feeling on what I'm trying to do, then hit some putts and try to get that figured out as well.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open”

“So if you get the club behind you, like most amateurs know if you get the club behind you on the way back, it's just going to come over the top. It's basically a professional over-the-top move is what I'm trying to fight at the minute. Get the club in a good position on the way back and it wants to do the right thing on the way down.:

After finishing six shots behind Morikawa at The Concession, he said: “I'm still searching a little bit. There was signs that there's some good stuff in there. I think if anything I felt good with the putter this week, changed from the spider back to the blade which felt good, which was nice.”

At the following week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, he finished up eight shots behind Bryson DeChambeau after hitting two balls in the water at the sixth when attempting to close the gap and left Bay Hill sounding downbeat about his game.

“There was some good parts this week again. Some stuff that I'm sort of, I don't know what the word is or how to describe it, but just a little dejected or -- I don't know, like, maybe like maybe looking to go in a different direction. I don't know. I need something, I need a spark, I need something and I just don't seem to have it. Some days it's good, some days it's not. So I'll get up there tomorrow, get some practice in and get ready for next week.”

Returning for The Players at Sawgrass, he denied he was thinking of changing personnel in his team.

“I mean, I certainly didn't mean like a change of personnel per see,” he said. “I think more a change in philosophy or maybe what I'm trying to work on, maybe going in a slightly different direction. Not so much in terms of -- yeah, swing-wise I think there's some things that I'm working on that haven't quite bedded in or I'm struggling to grasp what I'm trying to do, so that's sort of what I meant, talking about going in a different direction. Just sort of maybe trying something different or thinking about another way to do it, I guess. More so I was coming from that point of view.”

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Rory McIlroy. Photo by Golffile

On his frustrations, he explained it was the inconsistency that was driving him mad.

“It's funny, I'd almost feel better if my game was worse, but it's the inconsistency of I shot 66 on Thursday and thought, I've got it, I feel really good, and then I didn't quite have it. The ups and downs are just a little too much. I think that's where I'm sort of struggling to come to terms with it and sort of trying to figure out what I need to do because the good stuff is there. It always will be. I'll always be able to figure it out and find a way.

But it's when it goes slightly off, how do you manage that and how do you -- I feel like over the last few years, I've been really good at when my game hasn't been fully there still be able to shoot 69, 70, still being able to get it under par, where I feel like the last few weeks when it hasn't felt quite right, I'm sort of treading water and I'm just trying to shoot even par, and that was sort of what it felt like last week.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his stroke from the No. 2 tee during Round 1 of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, Thursday, November 12, 2020.
“Just trying to get the bad golf a little better because the good golf is always there and the good shots will always be in there. It's just when you're not feeling quite 100 per cent, that's when you need to just be able to manage it a little better, and I just haven't managed it well over the last few weeks.”

He crashed to an opening 79 at Sawgrass and followed that with a 75 to miss the cut by 10 strokes.

Leaving the course, he revealed that his swing issues had come about after he started trying to gain speed and emulate Bryson DeChambeau.

“Probably the swing issues and where it all stems from, probably like October last year, doing a little bit of speed training, started getting sucked into that stuff, swing got flat, long, and too rotational. Obviously, I added some speed and am hitting the ball longer, but what that did to my swing as a whole probably wasn't a good thing, so I'm sort of fighting to get back out of that. That's what I'm frustrated with.

“I felt like I made some good strides. I played well at TOUR Championship, played well at the U.S. Open. I sort of look back at Winged Foot and I look at my swing there, and I would be pretty happy with that again, and then after Winged Foot I had a few weeks before we went to the West Coast and I started to try to hit the ball a bit harder, hit a lot of drivers, get a bit more speed, and I felt like that was sort of the infancy of where these swing problems have come from. So it's just a matter of trying to get back out of it.”

He added: “I'd be lying if I said it wasn't anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open. I think a lot of people saw that and were like, whoa, if this is the way they're going to set golf courses up in the future, it helps. It really helps.

“The one thing that people don't appreciate is how good Bryson is out of the rough. Not only because of how upright he is but because his short irons are longer than standard, so he can get a little more speed through the rough than us, than other guys. And I thought being able to get some more speed is a good thing, and I maybe just -- to the detriment a little bit of my swing, I got there, but I just need to maybe rein it back in a little bit.”

Undeterred by his struggles, he added: “I want to get on the range right away and try to get through this. Yeah, I'm pretty determined to get back to where I know I can be.”

After working with Cowen early last week, he was reportedly “striping it” in during the Seminole Pro-Member outing on Monday, where a host of tour players, including Shane Lowry, also teed it up.

Cowen is a familiar figure on driving ranges on tour and has been frequently seen giving players who are not full-time clients the benefit of his knowledge, often on the short game or bunker play.

The Holywood star’s coaching arrangements will be a subject of interest when heads out in the first match of the day and faces Ian Poulter in his opening round-robin match in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club tomorrow.

A win over Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman would be a big confidence boost in a group that will also see Australian Cameron Smith, joint runner-up in the Masters last November, take on big-hitting Lanto Griffin.

The 16 group winners will progress with the champion in McIlroy’s group to face Xander Schauffele, Andy Sullivan, Scottie Scheffler or two-time WGC Match Play winner Jason Day.

If he finds form, McIlroy could face Jon Rahm or Daniel Berger in the quarter-finals and Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed or Patrick Cantlay in the semis, providing the top seeds prevail.

Number one seed Dustin Johnson is on the opposite side of the draw and on a collision course with DeChambeau as he seeks form ahead of his Masters defence in two weeks.

But McIlroy could also face Shane Lowry (right) in the quarter-finals if the Offaly man tops Group 3 headed by Rahm. 

The Spaniard will open his account against Colombia’s Sebastián Muñoz tomorrow as Lowry faces Texan Ryan Palmer, hoping to repeat the improved putting form he showed in The Players and the first two rounds of the Honda Classic.

Ryder Cup skipper Pádraig Harrington will be watching Group 8 with interest as Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Wallace, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia do battle.

However, neither Gary Woodland, Adam Scott, nor the injured Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose nor Tiger Woods will be in Austin. Koepka is also undecided about the Masters, telling Golfweek he had surgery last week after suffering “a right knee cap dislocation and ligament damage”.

In the opposite-field Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, 2019 winner Graeme McDowell is joined in the Dominican Republic by Harrington and Seamus Power.

The European Tour returns today with Gavin Moynihan, Jonathan Caldwell and Cormac Sharvin teeing it up at Karen Country Club for the second week running in the Kenya Savannah Classic.

Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow prepare for next week’s opening Major of the season, the ANA Inspiration, in the Kia Classic in Carlsbad from Thursday.

As for amateur Olivia Mehaffey, she blamed the mental game as she closed with a one-over 73 and slipped to tied for sixth in the Symetra Tour’s Carlisle Arizona Women’s Golf Classic on Sunday.

“It was mental,” said Mehaffey, who joins Forrest Little’s Julie McCarthy in next week’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur. 

“It’s something I’ve been working through the past few months. I struggle to commit and see a shot,” she added. 

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