Brian Keogh: How can Rory McIlroy respond as Jason Day widens the world rankings gap?

Golf writer Brian Keogh on the fallout from the Players Championship

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, throws his club on the ground after he made a bogey on the 9th hole during the second round of The Players Championship golf tournament Friday, May 13, 2016, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/)

Maybe Paul McGinley was wrong after all. Maybe Rory McIlroy really should start obsessing about his putting after another moderate display with the short stick left him eight strokes behind Jason Day in The Players and even further behind the world No 1 in the rankings.

Having declared following his most recent win in the DP Tour Championship in Dubai last November that "the next 10, 15 years is my time," McIlroy has been left for dead by Day, who was seventh in the world behind the Northern Ireland star 12 months ago.

In truth, the key now is that McIlroy has patience and listens to what McGinley said about him towards the end of last year when it was clear that the like of Day and Jordan Spieth were going to be a thorn in his side for years to come.

"The important thing for him is not to try to be something, just because they are,” McGinley said of McIlroy’s perceived and sometimes very real weakness on the greens.

"It is important that he goes back to what got him there in the first place and stay true to what has proven to be a successful template so far rather than trying to be something that he might not necessarily be.

"Rory is a streaky putter. He is never going to putt like Jordan Spieth. He is a streaky putter and he putts well enough. It is important he stays true to what got him here in the first place and not react to what the other guys have done."

 

This time last year, McIlroy had just won three of his first eight starts. But from the moment he tore ankle ligaments playing football with friends, he has managed that Dubai win and "only" seven Top 10s from 18 starts.

It’s not that McIlroy has played poorly, but he’s been made to look positively pedestrian by a Tiger Woods-like Day, who has won seven times in his last 17 starts and only looks to be getting better.

Not only that, Day has widened the gap with his rivals to such an extent that he now heads Spieth by 2.47 average points and McIlroy by 4.54, which means he’s unlikely to be knocked off his perch any time soon.

Sure, McIlroy has had six Top-10 finishes from his nine stroke play starts this year.

But he lost to Day in the semi-finals of the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin and while he has shown signs that he is close to his very best, his putting is becoming, as he likes to say, part of the narrative.

As Day finished eighth for putting in Florida last week, McIlroy was 68th of the 76 players who made the cut.

His failures to take advantage of myriad birdie chances at Sawgrass, where he was first for ball-striking, is leading to a damaging level of frustration and impatience.

In that sense McGinley was spot on in his assessment that McIlroy is like a top class football team that’s playing well but conceding too many silly goals through poor thinking, indiscipline and lack of focus.

"There's good stuff in there," McIlroy said last night after he finished tied for 12th. "There’s too many wasted shots basically, so that's what I need to try and cut out going forward…

"I’m just not taking opportunities on the greens, and being maybe a little bit too defensive, again. I kept saying it all year, but any time I am aggressive, I seem to play the wrong shot or I seem to hit a bad shot at the wrong time.

"Everything is just not clicking, and hopefully as the summer approaches, everything can start to click and I can go on a run, because I really don't feel like it's too far away."

McIlroy knows what he has to do, which is encouraging of his fans.

"I just need to go out there and play my game and trust that I'm playing well enough for the chips to fall my way sooner rather than later," he said.

This week’s Irish Open on the Palmer Ryder Cup course at The K Club offers McIlroy an obvious chance to get back into the winner’s circle and bring a miserable run of Irish Open form to an end.

It’s also a good week for Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry to build on solid weeks at Sawgrass.

McDowell’s share of ninth place was his first Top 10 finish since February while Lowry’s 65-68 start showed that he’s close to firing on all cylinders.

A five-over par weekend left the Clara man tied 16th. But while his 78 in Saturday’s course set-up disaster cost him a raft of world ranking and Ryder Cup qualifying points, he just needs to be patient and wait for his turn to come.