Doubts persist over McIlroy's game on eve of The Open

SOUTHPORT, England -- The ball was not going where he wanted it to, and clearly the sound and the feel did not jibe with what Rory McIlroy hoped to accomplish.

It was earlier this week on the driving range at Royal Birkdale, as McIlroy tried to put together the pieces of what for now is turning into a lost season. Having missed the cut last week at the Scottish Open, he showed up early to The Open venue, hoping to put in place the process of turning around his year.

There is time, certainly, and next month's PGA Championship at Quail Hollow has long been a tournament for which he seemed well suited. But his ability to claim a second Claret Jug at the 146th Open appears as futile as some of those iron shots on the range.

McIlroy, 29, enters the third major championship of the year having missed the cut in three of his last four events -- the U.S. Open, the Irish Open and the Scottish Open. A rib injury suffered in January has limited him to just 10 events in 2017, a lack of competitive rounds robbing him of proper preparation. And then when he has been fit to play, he has missed cuts, costing him more time on the course.

"With the injury I've missed a lot of events,'' said McIlroy, who won the last of his four majors nearly three years ago, the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. "It's tough. Injuries, you can't really mess with them, and you can't come back too early. I missed a lot of play because of that. I've sort of been playing catch-up all year.

"So no, I haven't played enough rounds. I would have loved to have played more rounds going into, not just The Open, but the rest of the year. But I'm sort of trying to learn as I go along.''

Perhaps some perspective is in order. We're in the midst of seven straight first-time major winners, which includes Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia.

Multiple victories in a season is rare, too. There are just three players in that category on the PGA Tour this year: Johnson and Justin Thomas each have three, while Jordan Spieth has two. So winning a bunch of majors can prove difficult.

"There is an expectation that because a player has won one major they should automatically win more,'' said Padraig Harrington, who captured three majors in 13 months in 2007 and 2008. "The game isn't like that.

"When [McIlroy] doesn't win, then everyone starts to question what's gone wrong with his game. Nothing has gone wrong with his game; he's just going through the ups and downs every player goes through.''

If you want to nitpick McIlroy's game, certainly his wedge play and putting have not been of a winning standard. He has not played enough measured rounds on the PGA Tour to be listed, but his strokes gained around the greens is .100. In comparison, Day leads that category with .649.

At last week's Scottish Open, McIlroy hit just half his greens in regulation and required more than 30 putts per round.

Perhaps this could be put down to his equipment change earlier this year. McIlroy made the switch to all TaylorMade clubs and ball, and it's possible there is an adjustment period that is not being discussed.

Someone went so far as to wonder whether his wedding ring is an issue. McIlroy got married to Erica Stoll in April and is playing with the ring on his left hand. Henrik Stenson noted that he plays without his wedding band but added: "I don't think Rory would do that if he felt like it was being a problem, really. Obviously it doesn't hinder him. He's probably got a smaller ring, not in the same kind of bracket as I am.''

Stenson's quip brought laughter, and McIlroy is not at the point of despair. He took in stride a question about his odds of winning being a rather high 20-1. "Good time to back me,'' he said.

But there could certainly be some technical issues, and McIlroy has been working extensively this week with his long-time swing coach Michael Bannon. Butch Harmon, the noted swing coach to the likes of Johnson and Rickie Fowler, has suggested as much in his role as an analyst for Sky Sports in the U.K.

"He doesn't look relaxed, he doesn't have a flow he has when he's winning all those championships,'' Harmon said. "It's almost like he's too precise. He's trying to make everything perfect. What I've seen in the last month and a half every time I watch him, he looks very robotic with his putting, he doesn't look relaxed or have that confident look.''

And maybe that all goes back to the injury. McIlroy first tweaked his rib in January prior to the South African Open, where he lost in a playoff to Graeme Storm. A day later he was diagnosed with a fractured rib, and he took seven weeks off, skipping a total of four tournaments.

He returned in March at the Mexico Championship, where he tied for seventh and appeared to be gaining form heading into the Masters, where he tied for seventh. But McIlroy then took time off to get married, and said he reinjured his rib while preparing for the Players Championship. He tied for 35th, then didn't play again until the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut. His best finish in four tournaments is a tie for 17th at the Travelers Championship last month.

"Sometimes when you're actually in the middle of the injury itself, it's not that frustrating because you have a process, you have to be very diligent with your rehab, you have to be a bit easier on yourself because of that,'' said Justin Rose, who battled his own injury issues last year while trying to manage his schedule.

"But when you come out of the injury phase and you feel good and you feel fresh and you feel ready to play golf again, you somewhat expect your game to be there. There's an element of being back to being tournament sharp. You can hit as many balls on the range sometimes as you want, but there's something said for just being tournament sharp. He's probably someone in the middle of that.

"One thing about Rory is as soon as you question him, he'll do something special and turn it all around. It's happened a few times in his career where people say he's in a bit of a slump and then he'll win the FedEx Cup. So never worry about him from that point of view.''

McIlroy didn't appear concerned Wednesday. Perhaps the work he's put in since the weekend has given him a confidence that all will be OK.

"My game is all there,'' McIlroy said. "Again, it's just about staying as positive as I possibly can. I don't know if I'll find something this week, I'll be able to tell you better when I'm in the tournament and how I'm feeling out there. But I'm as positive as I can be, I guess. And we'll see how that goes."