DUBLIN, Ohio—Scientists haven't confirmed it yet but the Earth may have stopped rotating for a few minutes Thursday when Rory McIlroy switched back to a conventional putting grip once the Memorial Tournament began.
This is what passes for big news in the up-and-down world of McIlroy, who mixes inspired stretches of golf—see 27 global wins, four major championships—with equally uninspired stretches—see 2015, anytime, anywhere.
All was right in the world of the Big Three, it appeared, when the top three players in the world arrived at Muirfield Village fresh off a win. Local resident Jason Day hadn't played since his Players victory, McIlroy took a week off after his Irish Open win, and Jordan Spieth won last weekend at Colonial.
All was evidently not right with McIlroy, whose experiment with crosshanded putting is apparently over after a brief trial. The move was possibly inspired by trying and failing to keep up with Spieth, who putts crosshanded, but was probably part of a deeper problem. McIlroy isn't happy with his putting.
The reason he switched back to conventional this week was simple math.
"I won the Irish Open with 127 putts for the week, so I didn’t putt particularly well," McIlroy said after he opened the Memorial with a 1-under par 71 following birdie-birdie finish. "I think I had 32 putts the first three days and 31 on Sunday. My ball striking was what won me that tournament. I knew I needed to make a change."
Two weeks before the U.S. Open at Oakmont might seem like an odd time for a change but it's not. It's never the wrong time to change if something isn't working.
"I felt like my pace wasn't good," McIlroy said of his left-hand-low style. "The greens are so fast at Oakmont and you have to have so much feel and touch, I felt like going back to conventional would give me the best chance."
So he made the change over the weekend when he said he was "messing around" on a practice green. His old grip and stroke felt more natural than his crosshanded grip, and his alignment and setup fell back into place and felt comfortable. End of story, basically. While this is a dramatic change, McIlroy isn't going to something new. He's falling back on something he's done all of his life until a few months ago.
"If I can put good structures in place, there's no reason for me to go with anything but what I've had before," he said.
There were six birdies Thursday but also five bogeys. That might not be a bad round on most days at Muirfield Village Golf Club. But on a day when Dustin Johnson was 9-under through 15 holes on his way to a 64 and Hudson Swafford posted 66, 71 didn't seem all that promising.
The fact that Rory was paired with Spieth made for an interesting comparison dynamic. Rory isn't the putter that Spieth is. Nobody on tour is, for that matter. But there is a big gap in that part of their games, and Spieth's success clearly played a major role in McIlroy's left-hand-low experiment.
As he walked off the 17th green, his eighth hole of the day, McIlroy chatted with Justin Thomas, the third member of the group, about Spieth being a greensmith extraordinaire. "Justin and I said, Jordan had 18 putts for his last 17 competitive holes," McIlroy said. "It’s impressive, yeah. No one shot is more important than another. A shot is a shot, whether it's a putt or a drive. The'’re all important. We get it done different ways but we get it done."
There is no substitute for holing putts, however, and McIlroy and everyone else on tour know that they are at a disadvantage there to Spieth. That's why McIlroy has to continue searching for ways to putt better. So crosshanded didn't work for him? That's good to know. So he went back to his old style.
"It felt sort of weird for the first 30 minutes," he said, "then it felt normal."
McIlroy said he does miss the way his left-hand-low style leveled his shoulders at address and helped his alignment. So to focus on correct alignment, he's gone back to putting a line on his golf ball. He said is he also working on other technical parts, like the position of his eyes in relation to the ball—whether they're directly over it or not.
"The difference between a good putting day and a bad putting day is very, very small," McIlroy said. "But I feel like I'm definitely on the right track. I holed some nice putts out there today. Hopefully, I can continue to see improvement."
McIlroy is seven shots behind Johnson after one round at the Memorial but that's not the point. Golf is all about putting the same way baseball is all about pitching.
Rory may be trying to get ready for Oakmont but really, he's trying to get ready for the Big Three and his role in it. Day and Spieth are better putters and have slightly better short games.
McIlroy's four majors and former No. 1 in the world status seem distant and far removed these days. He doesn't have to worry about challengers anymore. He is one of the challengers. And the one club that will get him back on top—or keep him from getting back there—is the putter.
And he'll be using in conventionally from now on. "I've given left-hand-low a go," he said. "I won one tournament with it. I’m moving on."