MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – Rory McIlroy tends not to play a tournament the week before a major. Then again, he tends not to miss three straight cuts.
With his game in need of a tune up, McIlroy added the St. Jude Classic to his schedule to play a few more competitive rounds before the U.S. Open. He is among 29 players in Memphis getting ready for the Open by competing, even though no one has won a PGA Tour event and then the U.S. Open the following week.
“I feel like that's just what I need … especially going into next week,'' McIlroy said Wednesday after his pro-am practice round. “But I mean I would love to play well here and obviously try and win the tournament, and that would give me a great confidence boost going into next week.''
McIlroy won The Honda Classic in March and lost in a playoff at Quail Hollow that returned him to No. 1 in the world. Then, he missed the cut in The Players Championship, the BMW PGA Championship in England and the Memorial. He hadn't missed three consecutive cuts since August 2008 when he was ranked No. 164 in the world.
After missing the cut last week at Memorial, McIlroy flew to San Francisco and spent four days at Olympic trying both to learn the course and find the form that helped him run away in winning the U.S. Open at Congressional a year ago. McIlroy called it a very productive time with his coach, Michael Bannon, learning the course and preparing for the Open.
“Even though it wasn't the way I wanted to spend the weekend, I still felt like I got a lot out of it,'' McIlroy said.
This will be McIlroy's fourth straight tournament, and he has made the cut in five of his seven PGA Tour events this year, including four top three finishes. McIlroy showed Wednesday he hits the ball very well at times with three birdies and an eagle on the par-5 No. 16. Then he gave a glimpse of his struggles by hitting into the water on No. 18 for a double bogey.
“The most important thing is that you see encouragement and you see glimpses of the great golf that you can play, the likes of the 16th hole today or the other holes I made good birdies and hit shots,'' McIlroy said. “It's just about eliminating the bad ones, and that's just a matter of I think playing more golf and becoming more confident with what you're trying to do.''
The TPC Southwind course is nothing like The Olympic Club, though this course has played much tougher since changes cut par to 70 here in 2007. This course ranked as the PGA Tour's ninth-hardest in 2011.
The field features Harrison Frazar defending his lone career win along with Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, David Toms – a two-time champ here – and former champ Justin Leonard. Ryo Ishikawa of Japan and Dustin Johnson also are making their first start at this event.
Zach Johnson, who won the Crowne Plaza Invitational two weeks ago at Fort Worth, said people ask him often why he plays in Memphis when he could be prepping for the U.S. Open. He said he's drawn by sponsor FedEx to an event that benefits St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
He didn't get a chance to visit Olympic, but Johnson said he prefers competing the week before a major.
“It requires everything,'' Johnson said. “It's firm, fast usually with firm greens, and as a result, you've got to shape shots and hit quality shots. Going into a U.S. Open where you have to have all aspects of your game on … this tournament certainly gets you into that sort of competitive state.''
Heavy rains Monday helped soften both the fairways and the Champion Bermuda greens at the 7,239-yard course. But clear skies and winds are expected to dry most of the course out before Thursday's opening round.
Frazar is back defending a title that was his first in his 355th start and came at a point where his aching left hip and family demands had him thinking retirement. He has made the cut in seven of his 13 events this year with two top fives.
“Right now I happen to be in a little bit of a phase where I'm not feeling my best, but it's certainly manageable with some therapy and some soft tissue stuff,'' Frazar said. “I'm doing the best I can. I'm not 25 anymore, and my body's just taken a beating. I need to do a better job of taking care of it.''
For Robert Karlsson of Sweden, this event is more important than the U.S. Open because it's this week's tournament.
“If it's a pretty tough test, it's even better,'' Karlsson said. “This week is probably not as good for Olympic Club because it's completely different conditions. You have Bermuda grass here. You won't have that over there. We're going to have hot conditions here, even though the weather forecast looks nicer than normal. But it's just mentally as I said to keep playing and hopefully if you can play well as well, it boosts the confidence a bit.''
Then again, Karlsson has finished second here each of the past two years, losing to Lee Westwood in a playoff in 2010 and to Frazar on a third extra hole last year.
“Nobody has beaten me over 144 holes still. It's those extra ones,'' Karlsson said with a smile.