As we head to Royal Birkdale for the 146th Open Championship, it’s difficult to recall a major in which it was so hard to predict a winner. Much of that owes to the indifferent form of the world’s top-ranked players, and none epitomise that better than Rory McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman has had a torrid time of late; missing the cut at the US Open, and now missing consecutive cuts at the Irish and Scottish Opens over the last couple of weeks. Hardly ideal preparation as he bids to win a first major since 2014, and, whether a fan or a neutral, it has been hard to watch.
The question is thus begged… what on earth has gone wrong?
Critics have pointed to numerous factors such as injury, a lack of intensity, and/or a lack of playing time. But the one change in stimulus which fits the timeline of deterioration best was McIlroy’s decision to switch equipment, and sign a multi-year, 14-club plus ball contract with TaylorMade shortly after the Masters.
At the time, his mid-season switch was greeted more with excitement than it was criticism. After all, he had been in limbo for six months following Nike’s shock decision to withdraw from the golf equipment sector last August, and tested more than his share of clubs in that time. And the fact that the 28-year old finished in a respectable tie for 35th at The Players Championship in the days that followed the announcement of the $100m TaylorMade deal didn’t exactly set alarm bells ringing.
But since then, the decline in his game has been significant, and, most worryingly, he seems unable to find the green from inside 150 yards, let alone attack the flag. McIlroy has attributed such shortcomings to “fine margins”, and says that he is “close” to his best form. Certainly there is little in the way of obvious technical flaws. His driving, while perhaps lacking some consistency, has not been dreadful, and although he hasn’t holed a lot of putts of late, his lag putting seems solid enough.
Yet it is his irons, and specifically his wedge play, which have been particularly shocking. A profound lack of distance control, and increased deviation in his shot tracer trajectories, suggest that control is in short supply. As does his mediocre chipping. Surely there must be some culpability on the part of his humbly-named “Rors Proto” irons?
What surely irks him is that, prior to his decision to sign with TaylorMade, he’d seemed to find wedges that he liked, and a putter with which he was in a good groove. Indeed, these were features of his play at the Masters, and at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a few weeks before.
But it appears that, after rigorously trialling different brands and equipment models, he was seduced by the 2017 version of the M2 driver, along with the TP5x golf ball. McIlroy joked with Dustin Johnson on the range that he had been “cheating” this whole time by playing an M driver, and even McIlroy seemed taken aback by the extra distance he himself was getting with the M2. And in an interview dissecting how TaylorMade managed to secure the signature of the world’s number four, Brian Bazzel, Senior Director of Metalwoods Creation, said: “Honestly, our plan was to start with the golf ball… and I think we had him at golf ball.”
No one will argue with the performance of either the M2 or the TP5x. But it seems as though, in the process, McIlroy has taken on board a set of irons and wedges which are not working for him, and he appears unable to settle on a flatblade that gives him the X-factor he so desperately needs to pick up the slack.
Some might argue that six or seven months, with plenty of testing and experimenting, represents ample time to settle on an equipment choice. Yet McIlroy had a year as a free agent if he wanted it, and previously indicated he wouldn’t make a decision until the end of the season. So what changed? Dollar signs in his eyes? A desire to get the press off his back about this particular topic? Or a need to keep up with the Joneses, given the impressive contingent of brand ambassadors TaylorMade had already assembled?
Only he knows. Either way, McIlroy now finds himself in a hole, and, to say the least, his choice of equipment has not helped matters. His confidence looks shot, and he was rattled to the point of not even speaking to the media after the first round of the Scottish Open last Thursday. We have, of course, been here before. Central to his miserable year of 2013 was a teething process as he sought to adapt to his new Nike clubs. It was a tunnel he overwhelmingly emerged from, winning two majors the following year.
The 2014 Open champion is plainly a good enough player that he may well be just a few good swings away from finding form again too, and the debate over his commitment to TaylorMade could be consigned to history at Birkdale this week. Yet it feels unlikely. There are a number of decent bets for the winner of the Claret Jug on Sunday. But, for the first time in a long time, Rory McIlroy isn’t one of them.
Mike Todt fell in love with the game from a very early age – a passion that hasn’t diminished ever since. He earned provincial colors throughout his junior years, but by the time he reached Varsity, the realization set in (thanks largely to some cold ales) that it was time to favor the pen rather than his clubs. He now writes for Golf Assessor and Golf Guide for Beginners, along with a few other sources.