Strong week at Muirfield would silence those who say McIlroy has lost his focus

McIlroy has received lots of criticism for his poor play in 2013.
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GULLANE, Scotland — His clubs. His swing. His putting. His globetrotting. His scheduling. His sponsor commitments. His tennis-star girlfriend. His management shakeup. His shortage of competitive reps. His failure to bow at Hogan's alter and wholly and completely turn himself over to the game.

The list of potential explanations for Rory McIlroy's disappointing play in 2013 has grown so exhaustive that there are seemingly no culprits left to blame (his new conditioner, anybody?). But McIlroy, who makes Jimmy Buffett look uptight, isn't ready to press the panic button — not even close to ready.

"What's the big deal?" McIlroy said Wednesday at Muirfield, where he is preparing to make his sixth Open Championship start. "I haven't had the best six months. It's OK. I'm fine. I've got a good life. … Sooner or later, it'll turn around and I'll be back lifting trophies."

That's all well and good, and undoubtedly the right mindset for a 24-year-old with two majors titles on his resume and untold millions in his brokerage account. But in this win-often-or-risk-being-forgotten world, what-me-worry decrees don't sit well with the masses. Nick Faldo, the windy three-time Open champion, reminded McIlroy of that when earlier this week he suggested that the World No. 2 — and former Faldo mentee — isn't working hard enough.

"You have a 20-year window of opportunity as an athlete," Faldo said when asked about McIlroy's underwhelming play. "Concentrate on golf, nothing else." The six-time major winner added, "The most ideal preparation I can think is to go to the club at nine in the morning, hit balls all day long, and leave at five. You have to do that."

McIlroy took issue with the criticism, citing his Tuesday schedule at Muirfeld as defense. "I actually was on the range at 6:15 [a.m.] and got out of the gym at 6:15 [p.m.] — actually a 12-hour day compared to his eight-hour day. It is what it is, and Nick should know how hard this game is at times."

Let's recap. Ten months ago, McIlroy blew the doors off the field at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, then picked off two more titles in the FedEx Cup playoffs, bolstering his place atop the World Rankings. Next came word of a splashy partnership with Nike, a deal announced on an Abu Dhabi stage with smoke and pulsing music and an Oz-like hologram of the Northern Irishman. Then came struggles, as McIlroy tried to adjust to his new gear: a missed-cut in Abu Dhabi; a sore tooth and a WD at the Honda; a ray of hope at the Texas Open (second place!) promptly followed by a T25 at the Masters; an ugly opening-round 78 at the Memorial; a split from his management group, Horizon Sports; a quiet week at the U.S. Open; a missed cut at the Irish Open.

And through it all: endless questions and scrutiny and speculation. What's wrong with Rory? His mechanics? His equipment? His…

"I think he's in love for the first time," Johnny Miller recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, referring to McIlroy's relationship with the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. "It's a wonderful feeling, and it's distracting."

"He's too talented not to find [his game]," Miller added. "But when you sign a contract like that [with Nike] and you're that set for life, a signal goes on in your head: 'I've got it made.' "

Rory, care to respond?

"It's been difficult to try, I guess, to explain why I'm not playing well or why I haven't had the results I've wanted over the last six months," McIlroy said Wednesday. "But I know that I'm working on the right things and I know that I'm doing the right things and I'm staying patient. Sooner or later, it will turn around and I'll play the golf that everyone knows I'm capable of."

Whether that will happen this week is another question. A windy, fiery links like Muirfield isn't the kind of course that rewards players who are trying to reclaim their ballstriking. Still, McIlroy has added a new driver to his bag, a Nike VR_S Covert, which he says has helped him eliminate blocks.

"It's more of a pear shape, but it encourages the clubface to close over a little bit more," McIlroy said of the driver. "I'm not getting that right shot anymore, which is a huge plus."

McIlroy said that he did not regret simultaneously switching out his woods, irons and ball earlier this year. "I don't mind maybe not playing your best golf for six months," he said. "It isn't a huge sacrifice in a 30-year career. That's the way I think of it."

That's the way Tiger Woods thinks of it, too. When asked about McIlroy's tumultuous 2013, Woods came to his Nike stablemate's defense.

"I won a major championship, my first one out as a professional, and then I proceeded to alter my swing a bit with Butch Harmon," Woods said. "And it took me the better part of a year and a half, maybe almost two years, before it really clicked in…

"I was getting questioned quite a bit through that era, that stage of my career: 'Why would you do something of that nature?' I think that for [McIlroy], he's going through that right now and he's making some alterations. Only he knows it's for the betterment of his game. … Deep down he knows what he is doing."