Snap out of it, Rory.
With a chance to put behind a year of travails that sunk him in the world rankings and fostered questions about his ability to win big again, Rory McIlroy instead succumbed to the pressure of winning one down the stretch.
If only he had relaxed, regained his poise and not wavered from his game plan, he would have won the Honda Classic with what would have been an oh-so-sweet exclamation point on the end of a rocky year.
It would have also heralded the revival of one of golf’s best young players.
Even after he imploded on the final 11 holes at the PGA National course, McIlroy had given himself a chance at a miraculous save on the 72nd hole of regulation play. Driving the ball far down the center of the fairway, he had 245 yards to the pin, and he struck a beautiful arcing shot to within 11 feet of the cup.
If he had made it, the mess he had created would have been forgotten. Instead, he missed the putt and was thrust into a four-way playoff that left him watching Russell Henley hoist the triumphant cup.
Perhaps most disconcerting was McIlroy’s inability to take advantage of the guys who were chasing him, including Henley, Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox. Commenting on the caliber of players who were behind McIlroy, Jack Nicklaus advised him to take charge.
"These guys are kind of unproven," Nicklaus said on NBC of McIlroy's lackluster competition (via Golf Digest). "Rory is a proven player and Rory should have the advantage coming down the stretch with them."
What went wrong? Had the demons that made McIlroy struggle so mightily at the 2011 Masters returned?
Not necessarily, as McIlroy showed for three-and-a-half rounds why he was once the No. 1 player in the world. There is no denying he will lead more tournaments in the future, but here are a few things he can do to assure those leads become victories:
- Trust in yourself. He is better than most pros and is still ranked sixth in the world. He should remember the 2011 Masters. Remember the failure and use it to fight back. When he held a four-shot lead entering the final round of the 2011 Masters, McIlroy seemed to alter his aggressive attitude. There was a letdown that led to his ultimate collapse. “I came out and was trying to be this player that I’m not,” said McIlroy, who ballooned to a final-round 80. “I was trying to be ultra-focused, tunnel-visioned, which just isn’t like me. I’m usually pretty chatty and sort of looking around and being quite relaxed about the whole thing.
- Play to your strength. Now that he is driving the ball straight and long, the rest of the field better watch out. During the tournament, he averaged 309 yards off the tee with 62.08 percent accuracy. He also hit 65 percent of the greens in regulation. After getting used to his new Nike clubs, his game is back on track, and he should use it to his advantage.
- Go for the kill. Tiger Woods or Nicklaus would have nailed that putt on 18. McIlroy has to regain the killer instinct that set records in his two major wins. He won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes and a record score of 16-under par. A year later, he won the 2012 PGA Championship by eight strokes, another record. At that point, we thought we were seeing the second coming of Woods. McIlroy knows how to win and win big. He just has to remember that.
- Don’t waver from what got you here. McIlroy had a great plan going into the Honda Classic on a course where he had won before. His course management was impeccable, and it translated to a three-shot lead with only 12 holes to play. When things started to unravel, he seemingly forgot what had put him in first place. Holding to a plan down the stretch of a tournament is imperative.
- Don’t push putts when it counts. The 11-footer he missed on the 18th hole of regulation after that remarkable 245-yard fairway shot was a straight push to the right and lacked any sort of desire or confidence. Everyone was playing poorly on the final day, but McIlroy made five bogeys and a double bogey on the 16th hole to fall back to the pack. He would have won the tournament with that putt. Even though it was a great birdie, he seemed deflated as he entered the playoff.
At the Honda Classic, McIlroy had laid waste to the PGA National course where he had unceremoniously walked off just a year ago; the same course that began a wayward journey down the world ranks from No. 1 to No. 6. There were so many questions last year tied to issues with his new Nike clubs, his management team and his relationship with Danish tennis professional Caroline Wozniacki.
He came out of 2013 season with no wins but mustered a gutsy one-stroke victory over Adam at the Emirates Australian Open on the 72nd hole.
The win gave him confidence going into Florida as he pushed past a crowded field of the best players in the game. In some ways, it felt like a Major, and McIlroy was making a statement.
It really looked like he was in complete control of his game, his head and his future when he entered the final day of the Honda Classic two ahead of the little-known Henley.
Maybe if top-ranked pros like Scott, Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson were breathing down his back rather than three guys he barely knew, he would have sucked it up and gone in for the kill. Maybe he needed that sort of competition to succeed.
He surely needed something. Yet wasn't the chance to get his first win in more than a year enough to spur him on?
The surprising and heartbreaking way in which he folded on the back nine left the golfing world a bit stunned.
Still, with the Masters but a month away, Rory still has to be considered one to watch.