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Rory knows: It just takes a spark to ignite a run

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SOUTHPORT, England – Rory McIlroy is capable of playing such mesmerizing, poetic golf that it’s a wonder how his game could ever go sideways.

But the only one who doesn’t seem to panic in those situations is McIlroy.

He knows he’s been here before – several times, in fact.

There was the months-long slump in 2013, brought on by an equipment change and off-course drama.

There was the bizarre stretch in 2014, when his Friday blowups would spoil a good tournament.

Even last year he was in the midst of a 15-month winless drought on the PGA Tour.

“I’ve had little periods like this before in my career,” McIlroy said Wednesday at Royal Birkdale, “and I’ve been able to bounce back from them. I was in worse positions than this. The pieces are all there. It’s just about trying to fit them together.”

The most important piece of all is his health, and that’s still a lingering issue.

McIlroy seemed poised for a monster year at the start of January, but he developed a stress fracture in one of his ribs after too much offseason equipment testing. That cost him eight weeks – prime tune-up time for Augusta – and even though he’s been able to practice more recently, he conceded that he’s still “conscious” of the injury and won’t be 100 percent until the start of 2018, following a prolonged break. Earlier this week, he discussed his concerns with Charles Howell III, who recently returned from a 10-week layoff for a similar injury.

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“It’s a Catch-22,” McIlroy said, “because you don’t want to hit too many balls and aggravate it too much again, but at the same time if you want to compete and win some of the biggest tournaments in the world, you have to put in the time and put in the practice. It can be a little bit difficult to find the right balance.”

And so far, it has eluded him. After a few promising results this spring, he enters The Open having missed the cut in three of his last four starts; the only time he played the weekend, at the Travelers Championship, he rallied for a T-17 after making the cut on the number.

His struggles – again, a relative term for a global superstar with four top-10s in 10 starts this year – prompted Steve Elkington to tweet that McIlroy, 28, was “bored playing golf” and content with his four majors and hefty bank account.

Now a married man, McIlroy was asked Wednesday if he’s still as ambitious now as he was a decade ago, when he began his Open career at Carnoustie.

“I know what I’ve achieved and I know what I can achieve. It only makes you want to do that even more,” he said. “Having that success, you only want to do that more. You want to emulate that and you want to do it again and again and again. I definitely haven’t lost the hunger that I’ve always had.”

So, no, it hasn’t been the year that he planned, but the major season is only half over – under normal circumstances, he’d be a massive favorite at PGA venue Quail Hollow, where he has won twice – and it could still be memorable if the pieces start to fit together.

In May, McIlroy announced a new equipment deal with TaylorMade, and he’s still trying to find the right combination. In recent weeks, he has played Russian roulette with his putters, trying out three different models in four days at the Travelers. On Wednesday, while heading to the range, he saw fellow TaylorMade staffer Jason Day on the practice putting green and chatted for 10 minutes, at one point grabbing his mallet-style model and rapping a few putts. The mental battle is ongoing, as he tries to forget the technical aspects of his stroke and just focus on the target.

His recent form and putting woes have engendered such little confidence among the betting public that he’s listed here at 20-1 – his lowest odds in years.

“Good time to back me,” he said with a smile.

Because McIlroy has a long memory.

Those sky-is-falling periods in 2013, ’15 and ’16? It’s worth remembering that he responded with one of the best years of his career, back-to-back Order of Merit titles, and a $10 million PGA Tour bonus.

None of his peers will be surprised if the pieces soon fit together, if he’s back to playing that mesmerizing, poetic golf again. They’ve seen it happen too many times.

“The one thing about Rory is as soon as you question him, he’ll do something special and turn it all around,” Justin Rose said. “It’s happened a few times in his career where people say he’s in a bit of a slump, and then he’ll win the FedExCup. You never worry about him from that point of view.”