Rory McIlroy is making his first start since a T40 finish at the Masters.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Thursday, May 03, 2012

Rory McIlroy returns to Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., this week, trying to replicate the magic of two years ago, when his final-round 62 broke the course record and won him what is now the Wells Fargo Championship.

Phil Mickelson, who has six top-10 finishes but no victories at Quail Hollow, also will be there, as will 2007 champion Tiger Woods. And so the tournament will feature the three most dominant and arresting players in golf. It's a start.

The next seven weeks will bring us a tournament played on a future-major championship course (Quail Hollow, 2017 PGA), a faux major (next week's Players Championship) and a major (the U.S. Open at Olympic Club), which may begin to clear up what has been a muddled, if sometimes fascinating, 2012 season.

Mickelson's triumphant final-round 64 when paired with Woods at Pebble Beach was spellbinding. McIlroy's Houdini-esque scrambling to win the Honda Classic, even while Woods was conjuring a turn-back-the-clock 62 in front of him, was equally great theater.

All three hinted at a breakout season, but all three wilted in their last start at the Masters. Despite Bubba Watson's mesmerizing escape from the trees, the Big Three's big letdown left a feeling of unfinished business hanging over Augusta and the game. Mickelson's triple-bogey 6 on the fourth hole Sunday was weird even for him. McIlroy had finished in the top five in 11 of 12 starts when, a shot off the lead through 36 holes, he burped up a third-round 77 and tied for 40th place. Woods never even broke par. Multiple publications had made the Woods-McIlroy duel a fait accompli, but it turned into a joke as Woods also tied for 40th. With his two superstar rivals out of the way, Mickelson beat himself. Sigh.

Tiger is not back, no matter how good he looked while winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month, nor is he totally lost, no matter how far he kicked his 9-iron at Augusta. He's somewhere in between. He is close. He just has to trust it. Or so he says. Much was made of Woods foregoing his pre-tournament press conference at the Wells Fargo, but he and the scribes are like an old married couple with nothing left to say to each other. Plus, there's cool, albeit unintentional symbolism to the non-presser. The time for talk is over and has been for a while.

If Woods is close, McIlroy, who will turn 23 on Friday, is closer, although for good or ill, he probably lacks the laser-like focus of Woods circa 2000. McIlroy went to Europe with his girlfriend, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, after the Masters, getting away from the game before returning to West Palm Beach, Fla., to work with his swing coach and fitness coach last week. No one knows better than McIlroy that he opens himself up for some stick with the "Wozzilroy" thing. He'll need only to underperform in another major or two before he starts hearing echoes from a recent episode of Mad Men, specifically Bert Cooper's zinger to Don Draper: "You've been on love leave." No one ever said being a star was easy.

Mickelson could have come into this week with two or three wins, including a major. The week after he won at Pebble, he nearly won at Riviera before he and Keegan Bradley were done in by Bill Haas's 43-foot birdie putt in sudden death. Even after resorting to two straight right-handed bunts out of a bamboo thicket at Augusta, Mickelson finished two shots out of the playoff. Putting better than he has in years, he still may be headed for a monster year. Again, it's a start.

As the U.S. Open champion, McIlroy took part in a USGA teleconference Monday, and I asked him an inelegantly phrased question: "You talked about the explosiveness in your game and winning at Quail Hollow two or three years ago, and then obviously in winning the U.S. Open last summer. I was just wondering, what have you been able to figure out as far as being able to tap into that explosiveness? Because when you find that extra gear, no one can really stay with you. But it seems to be a question of when and how often you can find it."

Here was the subtext, which went unspoken since it would have been even clumsier than the actual question (if that's possible): When will you or someone of your stature lock your jaws around the pulsating, defenseless jugular of this season and this game and refuse to let go as if your next meal depended on it?

And here is what McIlroy said:

"Well I wish I knew the answer to that, to be honest. Yeah, it seems to happen a few times a year and it's nice. It would be nice to know when it was going to happen or how often, but you really don't know these things. All you can do is work hard and practice. And there is going to be times where you catch fire and you maybe play a 36-hole stretch and play it in 15 under or something like that, but I don't know, I'm just glad that it happens once or twice a year, and I feel like the rest of my game is getting better, so I'm able to put myself in contention more often and be able to win with maybe not having that explosiveness on any given week. So I think that's the real key to becoming a better player for me."

In other words, reeling off multiple wins depends on being able to close without your best stuff, as McIlroy did at the Honda. Woods won ugly many times in his prime, including at Quail Hollow, and Mickelson also has done so. Any of the three or even Hunter Mahan, the only player with multiple victories on Tour this year, is capable of winning at Quail and commencing an epic run that continues through the U.S. Open. They just need to do it. We want them to do it.

The Champions Tour will give us a "Greats of Golf" exhibition Saturday at the Insperity Championship in Houston. Jack Nicklaus (72), Arnold Palmer (82), Gary Player (76) and Lee Trevino (72) will tee it up one last time at the Woodlands Tournament Course.

In 50 years it will be McIlroy, Mickelson and Woods. They'll put their teeth in and smile for the cameras, and those of us who are left will watch, because whether it's Champagne or Efferdent, the stars put the fizz in the drink.

 

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