Heading in wrong direction, McIlroy looks to turn his game around in Memphis

June 6, 2012

Tiger Woods beat playing partner Rickie Fowler by 17 strokes at the Memorial on Sunday. Phil Mickelson beat Woods by 11 at Pebble Beach earlier this year. Fowler zinged Mickelson 6 and 5 at the WGC-Accenture last year. So, if we invoke the laws of transitive relation and hypothetical syllogism—oh, never mind.

You don’t have to look far for reminders of how hard it is to win on the PGA Tour, how fickle the nature of golf can be, and how quickly everything can change. This week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind is full of examples, starting with Rory McIlroy, who is trying to find his game after three straight missed cuts. He was anointed as the next Tiger after annihilating the field by eight shots at the U.S. Open at Congressional last June. Now he’s just another kid trying to find it.

(PHOTOS: SI's best shots from McIlroy's U.S. Open win)

Zach Johnson, 36, has been around long enough to know the feeling. He’s one of the hottest players in the game, having won (Colonial) and finished second (Players Championship, Hilton Head) in three of his last four starts. And yet he’s far from cocky, ever-mindful that the Golf Gods absolutely abhor cockiness.

“It's one of those things, I know if I get too complacent or too content with what I'm doing, then it can go the other direction,” Johnson said Tuesday.

That was proven when Kyle Stanley blew a five-shot lead at the Farmers Insurance Open this season, which was followed by Spencer Levin blowing a six-shot lead and losing to Stanley in Phoenix. Both players are in the field in Memphis.

“It’s not the end of the world, but it sure feels like it at the time,” Robert Garrigus said earlier this year of blowing a big lead, after Stanley’s collapse.

Garrigus would know. He led the 2010 FedEx by three as he stood on the 72nd hole, made a triple bogey, fell into a playoff and lost. G’night, good luck.

“You’ve got to get there to blow it,” Garrigus continued. “That’s what Chris DiMarco said to me: ‘You’ve got to get there to blow it, and you’ll be there again. Don’t worry about it. It’s just golf.’”

Those are words Levin could stand to hear right about now. He played his way into the final group at the Memorial last week, but he shot a 75 and wound up tied for fourth. He and his playing partner, Rory Sabbatini (who tied for second at Muirfield), perhaps tired after their Memorial misadventures, came nowhere near qualifying at the U.S. Open sectional in Columbus on Monday. The disappointment had to be especially acute for Levin, a Northern California guy whose favorite team is the San Francisco Giants. He would likely have relished playing a U.S. Open at Olympic Club.

Alas, golf is a four-letter word, like pain, no matter what your pedigree. Major champions Rich Beem, John Daly and Todd Hamilton are among those in the field in Memphis who are looking to reestablish a foothold on Tour.

McIlroy will go off the 10th tee with fellow Irishmen Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell at 7:27 local time Thursday. All three have won majors, but all three hit rocky stretches in their après-major seasons. No slump has been more surprising than McIlroy’s, and his woes are being lumped together with the travails of his tennis player girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki. Fair? Unfair?

It doesn’t matter. Woods could tell him that. Before last weekend, Woods was an old 36, a guy who could crumple to the turf with another knee injury at any moment, who had probably made one major swing change too many, and who was certainly on the downside of his career. Now he’s Superman again.

(PHOTOS: SI's best shots from Tiger's win at Memorial)

McIlroy, 23, may already be in need of a similar revival, but he need not worry. Past performance is no indicator of future results; just a year after he should have won by three, Garrigus missed the cut at TPC Southwind in 2011. As we’ve seen, it only takes one week, or in some cases one crazy shot, to change everything.

Short game: Lee Westwood, who won at Memphis in 2010, is skipping this week’s tournament in favor of the European tour’s Nordea Masters in Stockholm, Sweden. Also in the field: Sergio Garcia, Ross Fisher and Peter Hanson. … Robert Karlsson has lost in a playoff in Memphis two years in a row, first to Westwood and then to Harrison Frazar. Karlsson will try again this week. … Wake Forest graduate Cheyenne Woods, niece of Tiger, will make her professional debut as a sponsor’s exemption at this week’s Wegmans LPGA Championship at Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y. She missed the cut by four shots as an amateur in 2009. … Stacy Lewis, also in the Wegmans field, vaulted from seventh to third in the Rolex Ranking with her four-shot victory at last week’s ShopRite LPGA Classic, which included back-to-back 65s. … Yani Tseng dominated at the Wegmans last year, winning by 10 to become the youngest to win four LPGA majors. … James Hahn, who won the Nationwide tour’s Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, flew back to the Bay Area, where he grew up, and was co-medalist (66-70) on Monday at the U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Lake Merced Golf Club and Harding Park. … This week’s Mexico Open at El Bosque C.C. is co-sanctioned by the Nationwide tour and the Mexican Golf Federation. The MGF determines 22 players, and the field will also include the four leading money winners from the Tour de Las Americas Order of Merit. … Michael Allen, a two-time winner in 2012, and Jay Haas, coming off a five-shot victory at the Principal Charity Classic, headline the field at the Champions tour’s Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek. Fred Couples, defending champion Tom Lehman and unlikely Senior PGA winner Roger Chapman are also in the field, as is 2011 Regions runner-up Peter Senior.