Equipment concerns linger as McIlroy prepares for 2013 debut on U.S. turf


Rory McIlroy hasn’t said much since leaving Abu Dhabi last month after missing the cut with his new Nike clubs, but plenty of others have been talking about him.

While the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings has been off with instructor Michael Bannon trying to get a feel for the new sticks, he has been a topic of conversation ahead of his return this week in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Some have voiced concern, while those who know him best don’t seem worried.

Nick Faldo first expressed that it was “dangerous” for the 23-year-old McIlroy to make changes while at the top of his game, not to mention at the top of the game.

Recently, another former champion seconded the motion.

“Rory’s momentum was very good last year but it can be very dangerous to change clubs,” said two-time major champion Sandy Lyle of Scotland. “It’s the driver and the fairway woods that are the biggest issues. Rory will adapt to the irons pretty quickly, although he will have teething problems.

“It only takes a little chink in the armour in this game for it to start becoming a worry. It might just be that he goes through a bit of a hiccup for a few months before he gets back into full flow.”

We might not find out this week because McIlroy could play well and still lose to Shane Lowry in the first round of the Accenture at Dove Mountain.

That’s the way it can go in match play.

McIlroy breezed through five opponents last year before losing to Hunter Mahan in the final. He is a strong match player, but anything can and will happen when they tee it up this week near Tucson.

Ian Poulter is a Ryder Cup stalwart and captured the Accenture title in 2010, but has lost in the first round each of the last two years.

Tiger Woods has prevailed three times in the tournament, but he also has been upset twice by Nick O’Hern of Australia in early rounds, and also was taken down by Peter O’Malley of Australia in the first round in 2002 and by Thomas Bjorn of Denmark in his 2011 opener.

Even if that happens to McIlroy this week, Graeme McDowell doesn’t expect him to stay down long.

“When you’re as talented as Rory McIlroy, I don’t really care what your driver says, don’t care what your iron says or what your golf ball says,” McDowell, who has teamed with McIlroy in the Ryder Cup and the World Cup, said on the “Morning Drive” show on the Golf Channel. “When you’re as good as he is, it’s a transition that should be pretty straightforward for him to make.

“The biggest hurdle that he has right now is in his mind, the pressure that is put on him by the world media, by people, and most importantly that he’s put on himself from inside him. You’ve just got to get across the hurdle of playing well a few times with the new equipment.

“He’s a talented kid. I’ve never seen a guy make the game look so easy. It doesn’t matter what it says on the back of his iron. He’ll be OK, and it’s just a matter of time before he settles down and comes to terms with what’s in his head, in regards to the pressures he’s created for himself.”

McIlroy has dealt pretty well with the pressure for a kid of 23, claiming two major titles and climbing to the top of the game much the same way Woods did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

While his ball-striking has never been questioned, he made a big move once he started working with putting guru Dave Stockton, who doesn’t expect a long transitional period with the new clubs.

“He put 14 clubs in the bag and hadn’t played in two months,” Stockton said, brushing off the missed cut in Abu Dhabi. “He’s pumped about the clubs. He has no question he can use those clubs. I just think it was a little bit early.

“With his touch he will have more problems with the driver. That’s the one it will take him a little bit longer to get.”

However, McIlroy ditched the Nike Method putter in round two in Abu Dhabi, going back to the Scotty Cameron model he has used for several years, but said that was only because he felt it would be more effective on the slower greens.

As for the Nike Covert driver, which is a big part of the company’s marketing campaign with McIlroy, he agrees with Stockton.

“I’m really happy with the ball and the wedges,” Rory said in a quick review of the new equipment before leaving Abu Dhabi. “The putter is good on fast greens that I’ve practiced on.

“I just need to … probably just need to find a driver that I’m comfortable with, because I didn’t drive the ball at all well. I feel like that’s a big advantage for me is driving the ball.”

That’s almost as a big question this week as how McIlory will play – what’s in and out of his bag?

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