With every major setback, Rory McIlroy’s barren run becomes increasingly more difficult to arrest. That is the view of Sir Nick Faldo, the three-time champion, who like every observer here at Augusta National watched on in pity as the Northern Irishman missed his first Masters cut in 11 years.
After a torrid year, which has witnessed the 31-year-old fall from world No 1 to outside the top 10, few expected McIlroy to win this week and so become just the sixth player in history to complete the grand slam. But even fewer would have anticipated such a limp display.
On six-over, he fell three shots short, but in truth he seemed even further away than that. In the CBS tower, Faldo did not mince his words. “We are seven years on from his last major and that is a lot of scar tissue,” he said. “This game is a knife where trust and confidence can be lost in one shot.”
The hope is, of course, that McIlroy’s self-belief can be fixed in one shot, although that appears forlorn in the extreme at the moment. The two-way miss is buried deep within his broken psyche and Pete Cowen, his new swing coach, will realise that this is as much a mental problem as it is technical. Paul McGinley, McIlroy’s friend and former Ryder Cup mentor, believes the golfer should step away.
“There a lot of work to be done, but I think the best thing for Rory is a few weeks in the sunshine on a beach somewhere and clear his head,” McGinley, the Sky Sports analyst, said. “Sometimes the harder you try at this game the harder it gets, no matter how talented you are.”
Butch Harmon, the celebrated coach, concurs. “Rory’s out of sorts. And a couple of weeks off down in the Bahamas with the family could be what he needs,” he said. “Just get away from golf and then come back with a fresh outlook.”
It will be intriguing to see if McIlroy takes the advice after what can be considered the worst month of his 13-year career. It began with a missed cut at The Players, gathered pace with his 6&5 defeat to Ian Poulter at the WGC Match Play two weeks ago and then descended still further with this Masters mediocrity. Of course, it is not Cowen’s fault. As the Yorkshire says: “I am not a miracle worker.” Cowen is right to ask for time.
Harmon has no doubt that his fellow guru will provide the fix, although does wonder if a fortnight before The Masters was the correct juncture at which to enact such a seismic change. McIlroy’s revered motion had been overseen by nobody else but Michael Bannon since he was eights years old.
“I said coming into this week it was going to be difficult bringing a new golf swing into a major championship,” Harmon said. “First of all, bad shots are part of the process, as we’re seeing. The difficulty is when you come in with a new swing you don’t have the confidence in it – it works on the range, for practice rounds. That doesn’t mean anything until you have to put it in play.
“To have made the change right before coming into a major… well, was that the right thing to do? I don’t know. He picked the right guy, that’s for doggone sure. Pete’s had success with everybody he’s ever touched.”
Perhaps Cowen slipped a travel agent’s brochure into McIlroy’s bag before he quickly departed the grounds – declining a request to talk to the media – on his way back to the South Florida home he shares with wife Erica and baby daughter Poppy. McIlroy is not playing at Hilton head – which starts on Thursday – and in any normal season would not be expected to be seen again until the Well’s Fargo at Quail Hollow in three weeks’ time. The Charlotte course holds a special connection to McIlroy – it was there where he won his first PGA Tour title, ironically in his next outing after last missing the Augusta cut. An omen?
McIlroy will certainly hope the forces are strong because the next major – the USPGA in five weeks time – is taking place at Kiawah Island. In 2012, he won his second major at the rugged South Carolina layout by eights shots. Good memories should abound in the forthcoming weeks and maybe these will help him conquer his current demons. Then it will be simply a case of eradicating his rhythmic gremlins.
The problem is obvious, as he acknowledges. “My swing is an unusual pattern for me,” McIlroy explained. “Usually the club gets out in front of me on the way back and then drops behind me on the way down. But at the minute it’s the opposite. It sort of gets behind me early and then I throw it back out in front of me on the way down.
“For my whole golf life I’ve got used to dropping it underneath the plane on the way down, and from there I can manage it. I can hold it off. I’m used to that feeling. But this feeling, I’m not used to. That’s where the two-way miss comes in.”
This was seen to ruinous effect on the 10th on Friday. The downhill, doglegged par-four already held a gruesome place in McIlroy’s career as it was there, 10 years ago, when the Masters meltdown of that young front-runner infamously began with a treble-bogey seven. This time it was “only” a double-bogey six, but the near shank he hit on his approach summed up his issues, albeit from a hanging lie. And the Augusta ghosts giggled themselves silly.