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McIlroy in Memphis poses questions

During the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March, I stayed at the Doral Resort in Miami with most of the players and their families. For me, it was a rare glimpse of the players as they went through all the phases of their day from the gym to breakfast to the golf course to the range to dinner.

It's not often that I see Rory McIlroy in large black-rimmed glasses, shorts and a golf hat at a $25 Sunday brunch or Jonathan Byrd and Bubba Watson coming from Wednesday Night Bible study.

At Doral, it was hard to miss McIlroy and his parents. Just a week earlier with a win at the Honda Classic, the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland had become No. 1 in the world for the first time in his short career. Doral would represent a weeklong coming-out party for them at Donald Trump's newest property.

McIlroy's dad, Gerry, an affable gray-haired man who did odd jobs to support his son's junior golf forays, could barely take a step on the sprawling resort without someone stopping to congratulate him about his son. He was the newest celebrity golf dad.

On the golf course, Rory kept our attention by nearly winning the tournament, coming in third place. Doral would mark the end of a three-week stretch where Rory had a second, a first and a third-place finish. That was as good as it would get for the 2011 U.S. Open champion.

After taking three weeks off from the game, he went to the Masters and shot nine over par on the weekend to finish in a tie for 40th. Since losing in a playoff at the Wells Fargo Championship in May, McIlroy has missed three straight cuts worldwide. Desperate to find some life in his game, the world No. 2 will play this week in Memphis at the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Not long ago it would have seemed unimaginable that McIlroy would play the week before the U.S. Open. At Doral, some members of the Swedish media put him on the spot for pulling out of this week's Nordea Masters.

"It's the week before the U.S. Open, and I felt like if I had played, I wasn't giving myself the best chance to defend," McIlroy said. "I feel like the best way to prepare for a major for me personally is to take off the week before and go to the venue.

"I realized that quite quickly after I committed, and you know, it's unfortunate that I'm not able to play, but I try and base my schedule around the majors and that was the main reason."

But after shooting an 80 in the second round to miss the cut two weeks ago at the BMW PGA Championship in England, he admitted that he needed more reps.

"I just feel like I've lacked competitive rounds maybe a little bit," said McIlroy. "I take a couple of weeks off after the Masters, played Quail Hollow great, and then we had two days at The Players Championship and another week off from competitive golf and another two days here [in England.] I'm looking forward to hopefully getting over to the states and playing four rounds next week."

But the four rounds he alluded to in the states at the Memorial didn't happen. McIlroy shot a 79 in the second round at Muirfield Village to miss the cut by 3 strokes. At Memorial, he said he was working on a few things and that trying to put them in competition was the best way to prepare for the U.S. Open.

"I don't feel like the scores are actually reflecting how I'm hitting the ball," he said. "I hit some good shots. It just seems like every time I go out there I make one or two big numbers and that throws me, a couple of doubles on the back nine. Those big numbers are killing me. I just need to get those off the card and I'll be OK."

It's never a bad idea to work on swing changes in competition or to play the week before a major or to take the week off. Every player has to do what's right for his game. Phil Mickelson likes to play Houston the week before the Masters, but Tiger always sits out the week before heading to Augusta. Both have won green jackets.

McIlroy's decision to play Memphis is a sign that he's not wedded to hard and fast rules about his schedule. If he were playing better golf, he probably would be in San Francisco this week, instead of a solid, but second-tier event like Memphis.

Yet, it's also important for him to stick to a plan. Every time he has a slump or hears murmurings about his imminent demise, he shouldn't consider a new course of action, especially when he's seen a plan work.

Last year, he finished in a tie for fifth at the Memorial. Then he took a week off before going on to win by 8 shots at Congressional. In the week leading up to the start of the 2011 U.S. Open, he had played Congressional a number of times and was very comfortable around the place.

Sure, he'll get plenty of reps at Olympic before play starts next Thursday, but he'll be doing it under the intense pressure of championship week, where he will certainly face distractions as the defending champion.

Ultimately a great week at Memphis could propel McIlroy to his second straight U.S. Open title. But another missed cut could further damage his confidence. It's a risk that he's willing to take.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.