• Clubbing Down

Florida swing puts Rory's under the microscope

Will Tidey February 27, 2013
The Nike marketing men and women will hope Rory McIlroy can keep it on the green stuff this week © AP

The home of golf might be St Andrews, but the home of professional golfers is Florida. No fewer than 13 of the current top 25 in the world have bases there according to the PGA Tour, including Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood and recent arrival Rory McIlroy - who in December picked up a modest £6.7 million, six-bedroom house with all the trimmings in Palm Beach Gardens.

McIlroy will defend his Honda Classic title on home turf this week, at a resort just eight miles from his new pad. It was the victory 12 months ago that put him atop the rankings and saw him shrug off a charging Tiger Woods on the final day. Over four rounds in the 60s, McIlroy took on the testing PGA National course with a composure that belied his years. It was a commanding, coming-of-age performance and fully befitting of his elevation to world No. 1.

He's back 12 months later bolstered by a second major win, a second Ryder Cup success and having signed a not-too-shabby endorsement deal worth $250 million. McIlroy's exponential rise continues and with it has arrived the fierce attention that has long fallen upon his Nike stablemate Tiger Woods - with whom he shared 36 holes in a gentleman's match on Sunday. Have a good week and talk turns to breaking Jack Nicklaus' haul of majors; have a bad one and you're in the midst of a slump.

Just three competitive rounds into 2013 and McIlroy has already got us worried. His two 75s and a missed cut at the Abu Dhabi Championship were followed by an opening-round loss to Shane Lowry at the WGC Match Play. The public enquiry into McIlroy's mini-malaise has begun in earnest.

His driving was off in Dubai; his iron-play in Arizona. The most obvious conclusion to draw is that McIlroy is struggling to adjust to his new Nike clubs - undermining the gazillions they're spending on him with every misplaced shot and prompting the suggestion the deal could prove (nearly) as expensive for McIlroy as it is for Nike. But McIlroy, unsurprisingly, isn't about to blame his new financiers for his form.

"It's still an adjustment period," McIlroy said this week. "It's more about how I'm swinging the club. That's the real concern." McIlroy's also talked about his timing being off, something he's working on correcting with his swing coach Michael Bannon.

Nick Faldo isn't convinced that's the problem. Discussing McIlroy's equipment switch on the Golf Channel last week, Faldo warned it was "a very dangerous time" for the two-time major winner. "I don't feel when you've climbed that wonderful climb to world No. 1 that you should be compensating and trying to find a way for your equipment to fit you," Faldo said.

McIlroy bit back, saying: "Nick Faldo doesn't know how I feel over the golf shot and I don't know how he felt." But he also came into the WGC event having changed to a different Nike driver and a different putter from the ones in his bag in Abu Dhabi - a clear sign the adjustment process is still in session.

Whatever the explanation for McIlroy's slow start, we can expect the analysts to be poring over his every shot this week. The good news for Nike is that means their clubs getting maximum exposure; the bad news will come if McIlroy misses a cut on a course he took to pieces with his old set a year ago.

The start of the Florida swing is all about McIlroy's swing.

Grip it and rip it

The European Tour visits the Copperleaf Golf and Country Estate for the Tshane Open in South Africa this week, where the field will take on the longest par-five in Tour history. The 7,791-yard Ernie Els design includes a 685-yard 4th - one of three epic par-fives that break the 600-yard barrier. A fourth is a putt short at 597 yards.

Darren Clarke labelled the layout "brutal", but with the distances players are driving these days - Seve Benson leads the European Tour with an average of 307 yards from the tee - there's really no alternative to making par-fives play in the way they were intended. It's not ideal for fans schlepping around the course, but at least they'll get to see some close approaches from wedge territory.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Will Tidey Close
Will has covered Tour events. majors and Ryder Cups and interviewed the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Rory McIlroy. He once inhaled the cigar smoke of the coolest man in golf, Miguel Angel Jimenez, while watching sports cars tear around Brands Hatch. As a left-handed hacker he's been humiliated at esteemed venues including Carnoustie, Wentworth, Kiawah Island and Pinehurst No. 2.