McIlroy takes different route to find his genius

Defending US Open champion is hoping that practice makes perfect

How this week's tournament organisers in Memphis must have loved listening to Jack Nicklaus imploring players to can events in the week before a major championship. A year ago he would have been preaching to the converted in the house of Rory McIlroy. Not this. The game's young beacon has lost a little of his light and seeks answers out in the middle.

Nicklaus shifted from fireside chats with McIlroy for CNN's Living Golf a week ago to podium appearances with the reconstituted Tiger Woods. To both he offered the benefit of his wisdom, forgetting, perhaps, that when he was their age he found his own way. Woods is temporarily out of the mire. We shall discover next week how much of his genius McIlroy has managed to recover in the thrash around America.

A third successive missed cut last week saw McIlroy traverse the continent for a first visit to the course in San Francisco where he will defend his US Open crown on Thursday. It was, it is understood, the suggestion of Nicklaus that McIlroy ditch the plan to arrive early at the St Jude Classic and instead plot a route around Olympic Club.

"Not to disparage the Memphis tournament, but nobody remembers who won last year in Memphis. They do remember who won last year's US Open," Nicklaus said, ignoring the obvious parallel that had it not been for Woods crossing the line first at Nicklaus's own tournament lastweek, no-one would know who won that either.

McIlroy is just a month past his 23rd birthday, old enough to reach freakish athletic peaks yet young enough to be troubled by a temperament nowhere near full maturity. He appeared shocked at Wentworth after missing a second cut immediately after bombing at Sawgrass. The third failure, at Memorial, added embarrassment to the cocktail of emotions.

Having taken the advice of Nicklaus to go west, McIlroy presented a calmer self on his delayed appearance in Memphis. He said: "I flew to San Francisco Saturday morning. I went out and played a little at Olympic Saturday evening, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. So I got three good days there. It was a very productive weekend. I feel I did a lot of good work with my coach, Michael Bannon, and got to see the course. Even though it wasn't the way I wanted to spend the weekend, I still felt that I got a lot out of it."

Sir Nick Faldo identified an exaggerated movement in the hips that was firing the celebrated McIlroy action a fraction early in the downswing and producing all manner of unexpected outcomes. "It's all about timing. The hips get way in front of the rest of his body. Once he puts that into sync he will be fine," Faldo said.

The work done with Bannon seemed to be paying off this week as McIlroy led the field after two rounds in Memphis. But yesterday there were more problems, and five bogeys in the first 13 holes suggested there is more work to do. But he goes into the final round one off the lead and refuses to be down-hearted. "The most important thing is that you see encouragement and glimpses of the great golf that you can play. It's just a matter, I think, of playing more golf and becoming more confident.

"When you're working on things, you're always scrutinising every-thing maybe a little bit more thanyou would when everything is going well. Hopefully the more swings you make and the more holes you play, the less you'll start to think about it."

McIlroy is ahead of the curve. How Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, with whom he is grouped in the opening two rounds in San Francisco, would love to be solving a crisis of form in the week before a major defence.

After his seventh major victory, at the US Open in 1967, Nicklaus had to wait three years for another, demonstrating the capricious nature of success even for those with his degree of mastery. McIlroy, as Nicklaus pointed out, is still learning how to cope after the first flowering of his talent on the major stage.

"It is important to learn something from your wins, too," Nicklaus said. "It is one thing to learn from mistakes, another to learn how to win. After the Masters in 2011, I asked Rory what he had learned. And after his victory at the US Open I sent him a note saying, 'Well done.'

"Rory right now is worrying how he is going to put that back together, but we all go through it. I went from 1967 to 1970 right in the prime of my career without winning a major. I just found that I was a bit lazy. I had too much success. I hadn't worked hard enough to prepare myself. I just worked myself out of it."

Nicklaus was lucky. He had a wife to keep his head the right way round. McIlroy was thrust on to the red-carpet ride of his life. In a matter of weeks the world's highest ranked player in women's tennis, Caroline Wozniacki, had replaced the girl next door, Holly, and by the autumn Chubby Chandler, the management guru who took him to his first major title, had gone too.

Then came the toxic Twitter exchange with Jay Townsend at the Irish Open and the petulant reaction to his poor Open showing in the wind at Royal St George's. To his credit, by the year's end he began to marshal his resources, setting out on a run that yielded 13 top-five finishes in 15 tournaments. Then came the Players Championship, Wentworth and Memorial.

"Maybe it was the golfing gods reminding me that this game is not as easy as it seems," McIlroy said. "The key is managing your game so you can win when you're not playing well. I'm learning that. It comes with experience."

Nicklaus concurred: "He already has the monkey off his back. The next one [major] will come when it is ready. But it will come. I might have to start worrying about him instead of Tiger."

US Open build-up: Westwood just needs a bit of luck to be the Cisco Kid

The key is in the name – Olympic Club. The last man standing at the US Open in San Francisco next Sunday will have survived a test of character and nerve that might easily be described as Olympian.

Narrow, tree-lined approaches; hanging lies off sloping fairways to small greens; and the longest hole in the tournament's history, the par-five 16th – 670 yards from tee to green, guaranteed to make mortals weep.

The second major of the season has long been regarded as the game's stiffest challenge, and the United States Golf Association will be delighted at the form shown by the best coming into this event.

Tiger Woods, the biggest name in the sport, was a winner again a week ago at Memorial, and the world's top three are honed to the hilt.

Luke Donald cemented his position at the top of the world rankings with victory at the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA, at Wentworth a fortnight ago.

World No 2 Rory McIlroy rediscovered his mojo to lead into the weekend at Memphis and No 3 Lee Westwood scattered the field in Sweden with imperious quality to win the Nordea Masters by five shots with a final-round 3-under 69 in Stockholm yesterday. Westwood finished on a 19-under total of 269 at Bro Hof Slott Golf Club to complete his 22nd European Tour victory and his third in Sweden. He won the Scandanavian Masters in 1996 and 2000. England's Ross Fisher was second on 14 under after a final-round 71.

Westwood's eyes glaze when the major question is put to him, as it surely will be again when he appears before the media on Tuesday. How many more times can a man be asked to apologise for being the third-best golfer on the planet yet not being good enough to win a major?

The answer, of course, has more to do with luck than ability.

Cast your gaze back to the Masters in 2010, with Westwood waiting patiently in the middle of the 13th fairway while Phil Mickelson located his ball in the trees. Westwood had hit another peerless drive. Mickelson, his judgment flawed, erred on the greedy side and overshot the fairway.

It was an act of desperation that saw the American reach for the 6-iron and fashion one of the most wondrous escapes the game has seen, threading the eye of a needle between two trees before finding the green. Mickelson's shot was sublime but he was lucky to have it.

An inch either side on those pine needles and he would not have had a prayer. Had Westwood's putter behaved as it did in Sweden he would have won this year's Masters by a record margin. He is good enough to tame Olympic. The question remains, is he lucky enough? A golfer combining Westwood's long game and Donald's short stuff would leave them all gasping for air.

Donald has spent the best part of 12 months at No 1, surrendering the summit to McIlroy for the odd week here and there.

He is metronomic in his consistency and meticulous in his preparation. Like Westwood he could not be in better shape. He has talked an awful lot about the missing major. There could be no better time to deliver it.

The organisers have taken the increasingly common step of grouping the big names together in the opening rounds, meaning Donald, Westwood and McIlroy dominate the afternoon schedules on Thursday after Woods, Mickelson and the Masters champion, Bubba Watson, have lit up the morning.

The honour of hitting the first ball falls to one Shane Bertsch of Parker, Colorado, who goes off the 9th hole at 7am (3pm BST).

The spilt tee times at the US Open and US PGA championships are a device to allow for completion of play in case of weather interruptions. Ordinarily the 10th is the alternate tee box but in the case of Olympic Club the layout of the course favours the ninth.

Those starting from the ninth tee have an opportunity to open the shoulders before the real examination begins on their back nine.

Thus on the opening day the Woods group has a notional advantage. Donald et al must face an opening hole designed as a par-five which is now a 520-yard par-four.

Kevin Garside

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