McIlroy returns amid club questions

MARANA, Ariz. -- Rory McIlroy will be fighting two wars when he begins his first-round match Wednesday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain.

There is the battle of trying to beat an old friend and fellow Irishman, Shane Lowry, in the fickle world of match play. And then there is the one to prove that he is finally comfortable with his new equipment.

The 23-year-old, two-time major champion hasn't been in competition since he missed the cut in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. That week, McIlroy's game took a backseat to the hype surrounding his jump to Nike from Titleist after ascending early last year to No. 1 in the world.

"The clubs were performing fine in Abu Dhabi, it was just the fact that I wasn't swinging at my best," McIlroy said Tuesday. "But I did a lot of good work with my coach Michael Bannon over the past sort of 10 days, and I feel like I've turned a corner with my swing."

Still, the reigning PGA Championship winner, who lost 2 and 1 last year at Dove Mountain in a tough finals match against Hunter Mahan, made some tweaks in his equipment over his monthlong break from competition. After the first round in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy went back to his old Scotty Cameron putter because he thought the new Nike flatstick was too light.

This week he will have a different Nike putter that is six grams heavier than the one he used in Abu Dhabi. He also has reduced the tip on his driver shaft to get a little more spin and carry.

The Holywood, Northern Ireland native has been widely criticized for making these wholesale changes. Nick Faldo, the CBS and Golf Channel commentator and six-time major champion, has suggested that the No. 1 player could have a very difficult adjustment period with a new ball, driver and putter.

"Nick Faldo doesn't know how I feel over the golf shot and I don't know how he felt," McIlroy said. "But my guess is he was a little more analytically minded than I am. I try and keep things as simple as possible.

"If I see the ball going in the direction that I want in the flight that I want, then I'm happy. It feels good and hopefully I can show that to everyone this week."

Yet there will be lingering doubts about the equipment change until he wins a tournament. Much like Tiger Woods, Rory doesn't believe that he needs to play his way into tournament shape. But real confidence only comes with low scores in actual tournament conditions.

"I think I just practice and if I feel like I'm confident on the range and hitting it well and playing well in practice rounds, then that will translate into shooting good scores on the course," McIlroy said.

For him, the WGC-Match Play is the beginning of a busy stretch that will climax with the Masters in April. After this week, he will play at Honda, Doral and Houston before going to Augusta.

With Woods regaining his form after a win at Torrey Pines, the spotlight is now on McIlroy to prove he can hold off the 14-time major champion and stay on top of the world rankings. The game's two biggest stars could face each other in the finals Sunday.

The 25-year-old Lowry will be good test for McIlroy. They have known each other since their amateur days. It was McIlroy who encouraged Lowry to turn pro after he won the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur. They are dinner companions and practice-round partners on weeks when they are in the same tournaments.

In their Wednesday match, there will be a good deal of chitchat, but also some friendly gamesmanship. For good reasons, Lowry could be in awe of his more famous friend, but McIlroy isn't taking any chances that his stature will have any influence on proceedings.

"It's just a title," McIlroy said of being ranked No.1 in the world. "I'm still the same person that played with [Lowry] on the Irish boys' team and Irish amateur team."

McIlroy has never lost in the first round in three previous appearances in the event. His worst showing came in a second-round, 8 and 7 beating from Ben Crane in 2010. Last year, he struggled in a 1-up first-round win over the South African George Coetzee.

McIlroy's finals match against Mahan must have felt a little anti-climatic after he beat his one-time-mentor-turned-rival, Lee Westwood, 3 and 1 in a spirited semifinal.

But in none of those previous trips to these matches did McIlroy have to contend with both the looming questions surrounding his equipment and the best players in the world.

Now that he has dialed in his specs better on his equipment, it's time for him to show that the changes were a minor detour to get on the right and true path that will lead him to a sustained place at the top of the game.

On Wednesday, McIlroy's good buddy Lowry could throw a fork in that road.