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McIlroy back under the microscope at Match Play

Rory McIlroy
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MARANA, Ariz. – That season debut – the one that included smoke tunnels and holograms and, eventually, one-armed follow-throughs – seems like a long time ago. So long, in fact, that when Rory McIlroy was packing his bags for this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he briefly forgot how many shirts and pants to bring.

You’ll have to excuse the kid. It’s been 32 days since that missed cut in Abu Dhabi; 86 days since he won his 2012 season finale in Dubai; and 149 days since he last competed on the PGA Tour, at the Tour Championship.

Not much has happened since then, unless, of course, you count a two-time major champion changing equipment, becoming one of the freckled faces of the biggest companies in the world, appearing in two TV commercials, and, yes, shooting 75-75 with a large segment of the golf community watching, waiting to dissect every poor swing and every sour facial expression. So, like we said, not much.

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Like Tiger Woods before him, McIlroy now lives as the man under the microscope, a headline in perpetuity. It’s little wonder, then, that after Abu Dhabi the 23-year-old escaped to the French Alps with his tennis-star girlfriend, spent a few sun-splashed days in Monaco, and then finally returned to South Florida – where he has purchased a stunning, $9.5 million pad in Palm Beach Gardens – to begin the serious work of reestablishing his game with instructor Michael Bannon.

“I feel like I’ve turned a corner,” McIlroy said Tuesday at Dove Mountain. “I’ve got it back on track.”

Everyone with a microphone and some airtime has weighed in on those 150 strokes in Abu Dhabi. Some suggested his changing equipment was a fatal mistake. Others questioned why he didn’t add another tournament on the West Coast, even though, he said, “I don’t feel like I’m a guy that needs to play his way into form.”

McIlroy understood the backlash was coming, particularly if he didn’t play well in his first start. Distracted all week – “I was just glad to get to the first tee on Thursday,” he said – he bombed out with a missed cut, caused a mini-controversy by switching from his new Nike putter back to his trusty Scotty Cameron, and then disappeared for five weeks.

Yes, with the interest in him never greater, he got away – from the spotlight, the scrutiny and the expectations. He needed the break, perhaps more mentally than physically. He was exhausted, agitated, and it was manifesting itself on the course.

“It’s nice to sort of get away for a little bit and do my own thing and not be in the spotlight or have the attention so much,” McIlroy said. Later, he added, “(The scrutiny) is part of what we do. We’re under the spotlight. We’re going to get criticized from time to time, rightfully or wrongfully so. That’s just the way it is. It’s part of life.”

What will the reaction be like if McIlroy – the No. 1 overall seed, the No. 1 player in the world – loses in the Match Play’s opening round Wednesday to Shane Lowry, a good friend for the past decade, but also the last man to secure an automatic spot in the field, a stocky Irishman with just two pro titles to his credit?

It’s happened three times before, the No. 1 overall seed being sent packing after one day, after one round. (Heck, it happened last year, to Luke Donald.) Once, Graeme McDowell rolled his luggage through the locker room, defeated, before McIlroy had even gotten to the course. Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, not much separates Nos. 1 and 64 over the course of 18 holes.

On Tuesday, Lowry was asked if he had any advantages against McIlroy, if only because he knows his game as well as anyone. “I don’t think anyone can have any advantages against Rory, to be honest,” he said, smiling.

Maybe so, but Lowry conceded that if he were to take down McIlroy in their first-ever meeting, “It would be one of the great stories of my career so far. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

They usually eat dinner together on the road, or play a practice round, the ultimate lesson in osmosis. (Not this week, of course.) Their relationship dates nearly a decade, when they played foursomes together for the Irish amateur team.

And when Lowry won his first event, as an amateur, at the 2009 Irish Open, guess who was one of the first players on the green to celebrate? And guess who was spraying the champagne? And guess who was the first to suggest that he turn pro afterward? McIlroy.

Lowry has since fortified his resume with a victory at the Portugal Masters last October, and here he is, faced with a potentially career-changing moment, hoping to validate his appearance here and knock off his good friend and, just maybe, create even more uncertainty atop the world order.

“There’s not many people expecting me to win,” Lowry said. “I’m just going to go out there all guns blazing.”