NORTON, Mass. – When things are going well the game can seem so simple – drives sail for miles into perfectly manicured fairways, approach shots always feed to the hole and every putt feels like it can’t miss.
But when things aren’t quite right, as they largely haven’t been for Rory McIlroy in 2016, the entire world is a mystery.
There are no easy answers, no carefree rounds and, most importantly for the former world No. 1, no apparent end in sight.
For most players, McIlroy’s ’16 campaign would not exactly be a reason to reinvent the wheel. Although it’s been more than a year since the Northern Irishman hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, he won the Irish Open on the European Tour in May, which for Rory is akin to a fifth major, and has more top-10 finishes (six) in the United States than all but a dozen of his play-for-pay frat brothers.
But those kinds of platitudes mean little to a player like McIlroy, who would rather practice his putting on broken glass than go 0-for-4 in the majors. But for the second consecutive year the young lad, and he is still a young lad, came up blank on the Grand Slam tote board.
Things reached a boiling point at the PGA Championship, where he hit the ball better than anyone else at Baltusrol but watched Jimmy Walker’s victory lap from home after missing the cut.
Without digging too deep into the minutia, the root of what haunts McIlroy is a suddenly uncooperative putter. At Baltusrol he needed 65 putts for two days of work; and while putting experts may debate the specifics, McIlroy has a “left miss” that has been compounded by a setup he has gradually compensated to match that miss.
Last week at The Barclays, McIlroy attempted to change his putting fortunes by teaming with putting guru Phil Kenyon.
“It's a work in progress, like I'm trying to work on a few things and trying to change a few things,” said McIlroy, who finished tied for 31st at Bethpage. “Hopefully it can start to begin to feel a little more natural this week and moving forward.”
Depending on whom you ask, McIlroy’s move to Kenyon is either an act of panic or a sign of progress. Like most things in life, the truth is probably somewhere between those polarized points.
McIlroy admitted on Thursday at TPC Boston that he and Kenyon are overhauling just about everything from his aim to his setup and how he reads greens, which is a cool fall wind when you consider that this is the same man who has won majors by eight strokes.
McIlroy’s ultimate makeover is even more comprehensive when you consider his own timeline for success.
“If I can be really comfortable with my putting going to Augusta next April, that's my timeline, so that's a seven- or eight-month period where I can sort of try to get it right,” he said.
While that recovery may not exactly play well in the European Ryder Cup team room next month at Hazeltine National, it is a sign of McIlroy’s commitment to turning 2016 into something more than a lost season.
There’s also something to be said for McIlroy’s resilience in the face of what has become a familiar swoon.
In 2013, McIlroy also failed to win a Tour event and posted just a single top-10 finish in the majors, yet rebounded in ’14 with two major triumphs at the U.S. Open and The Open and added a World Golf Championship high card.
Jordan Spieth knows something about bouncing back after suffering his own sophomore slump in 2014 when he went winless on Tour. We all know how ’15 played out for the Golden Child.
“Recognizing the longevity of a career, recognizing how many chances you're going to get, and that kind of time and the poor memories, the poor experiences like this year at the Masters, if you keep your head down, keep doing your job, it will end up diminishing because you'll end up getting back to that high point again,” Spieth said. “The more times you prevail, the less you think about what happened in those tough times.”
McIlroy will prevail. He has too much talent and, at 27 years old, too much time not to find the opening at the far side of the tunnel.
He’s also too smart to allow the inevitable ebb of a career define him.
“I'm taking a long-term view of it,” McIlroy said. “As long as I feel like I can see improvements each and every week and feel like I'm on the right path, then I feel like that's the right way to go.”
If that long view doesn’t exactly fit within modern society’s demand for instant satisfaction, know that McIlroy is keenly aware of what it will take to change his competitive fortunes. Just don’t expect a quick fix.