All about putting potential for McIlroy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A PGA Tour pro for more than two years, Sweden's Jonas Blixt has two victories and -- after a runner-up finish at the Masters -- two top-four results in major championships.

But until Thursday at Quail Hollow, Blixt had never played with Rory McIlroy.

"He hit it further than I thought; he hits it really far," Blixt said. "He hit some really long drives."

Perhaps we take it for granted.

McIlroy, who turns 25 on Sunday, has been bombing his tee shots for years, since the time he turned pro in 2007 at age 18. Last season, he ranked eighth on the PGA Tour in driving distance at 302.2 yards. He ranks sixth this season.

For a 5-foot-10, 160-pound golfer, McIlroy manages to get the ball out there. And maybe that's why Blixt was surprised. You don't think of McIlroy as a long hitter like Bubba Watson, who leads the tour with an average of 315 yards, or certainly not like Dustin Johnson, who is hitting it 309.

And yet, that is part of the beauty of McIlroy's golf. There seems to be an effortless power.

"You work off your strengths in this game, it's the foundation of the game, and for me that's driving the golf ball," said McIlroy, who opened the Wells Fargo Championship with a 3-under-par 69 and resides 3 shots behind 18 hole leader Angel Cabrera. "I drove the golf ball not very well for the better part of six or seven months last year. Then I started driving well the end of the year, and I've carried that through into this year."

The problem has been putting. As great as McIlroy has hit the ball at times -- he hit just half the fairways Thursday but averaged nearly 300 yards off the tee -- it has been the short stick that has let him down.

And while his driving was off for much of last year as he sought the correct combination with his new Nike equipment and golf ball, getting it in the hole when on the greens has always been the weakness in his game.

He ranks 141st on the PGA Tour this year in strokes gained putting, giving up nearly 2 strokes per round to the field on average. Last year he was 122nd and in 2012 he was 82nd, at least not conceding any ground on the greens.

So much goes into whether a player is performing, but McIlroy's four PGA Tour wins and a PGA Championship victory in 2012 were due in part to being a better putter than he's been lately.

And so it is no surprise that McIlroy was frustrated by his work on the greens. He tied for eighth at the Masters despite taking 125 putts; only two players needed more.

"I've gotten into a few faults this year," McIlroy said. "I started standing a little too close to the ball, so my eye line was on the first side of the ball. Basically I couldn't see a straight line."

Hence, McIlroy said, his aim was off. But that wasn't all.

"I started standing too far open and pushing it out with my left hand, so I'm trying to square myself up again and putting structure in place, so every time I get over a putt, I know that I'm aiming correctly."

Other than that ...

"Seems so simple," he said.

McIlroy has worked on and off with putting guru Dave Stockton, and when the Northern Irishman gets on a run with the putter, look out -- because McIlroy's ballstriking is too good overall for him to not shoot the scores.

"I've always been the type of player that I've never had to rely on my putting too much, so obviously you putt well, you're going to do well and contend in tournaments," he said. "I feel like I've always been a different sort of player, where even if sometimes I don't putt so well, I'll still be able to get it to run under par because I can hit the greens on the par-5s and two-putt those and hit a couple of iron shots close. But I never felt like I needed to rely on my putting so much."

McIlroy had eight one-putt greens Thursday and just 28 overall. More important to him was that he was making "the ones that I missed at Augusta."

As disappointing as his performance was at the Masters, the tie for eighth was his best finish in six appearances in the year's first major. And although he's slipped to 11th in the world -- his worst position since January 2011 -- his results this year have been encouraging.

He contended in tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and held the 54-hole lead at the Honda Classic, where he missed a potential winning birdie putt on the 18th hole. In seven appearances this year, his worst finish is a tie for 25th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He's been in the top 10 five times.

This tournament begins a busy stretch for McIlroy, who after next week's Players Championship will have the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship, followed by the Memorial and the U.S. Open. It's a good time to be finding some form.

"I've played well here before," said McIlroy, who got his first PGA Tour victory here in 2010, lost in a playoff to Rickie Fowler in 2012 and last year tied for 10th. "I feel like I'm really comfortable on this golf course and looking to do something similar [Friday]."