Whither Rory?

By: Marino Parascenzo

Rory McIlroy's little stab at wry humor was not lost on the media folk. Thinking ahead to the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, at Firestone South, he said he was just looking forward to playing on the weekend.

That was a good one. Joke's on you. There would be no cut there at the Bridgestone. Four rounds guaranteed.

It would be noted that a sluggish 2013 season was marked most recently by missed cuts in both the Irish Open and British Open. Those were merely the lowest points in a low season.

McIlroy played his four rounds at Firestone, but nobody really noticed. The regenerated Tiger Woods was running away with his fifth victory of the year, and his eighth at a track tailor-made for him - long and straight holes, user-friendly to the accurate golfer, and especially the long, accurate golfer, and Woods cemented his spot as the current No. 1-ranked player in golf by dusting the field by seven shots.

Nobody might have noticed McIlroy anyway. Like some journeyman, he just packed a lunch and went to work, and it turned into just another frustrating week in a string of them. In his young career, he's gone from topping the charts in 2012 to slogging through a rut this year.

Just go to one hole at Firestone. You can't presume to analyze McIlroy's entire game there, but a moment's study does offer an insight as to just how troubled his game is. Not by what happened, but by what didn't happen.

Yes, in McIlroy's dreary stay at Firestone, he did cough up three double-bogeys - uncommon for him and for Firestone. But for the fine-tuned analysis, see McIlroy at No. 2. It's a par-5 and, at 526 yards, practically a drive and a pitch. Over 72 holes it played as a par 4.5. It's always the easiest hole on the course.

Grandma Moses could birdie it. It gave up 12 eagles and more birdies than pars - 132 to 124. But McIlroy played it par-par-par-par.

Those who can't birdie No. 2 at least once over four rounds has to stay after the tournament and wash dishes.

McIlroy shot a pedestrian 70-71-69-72 and finished 2-over 282, tying for 27th in the select field of 73. This is hardly a recommendation for the defending champion heading to Oak Hill at Rochester, N.Y., for the PGA Championship this week.

It's hard to believe as the saying always begins . . . it was a year ago, almost to the day, that we marveled at McIlroy running away with the PGA Championship. How about that final touch? Soon after that last putt dropped at Kiawah Island, he revealed that back at the 18th tee he mentioned to his caddie, "I think I'll win this one by eight, as well."

That was in reference to the 2011 U.S. Open, which he also won by eight. Just for the symmetry.

Talk about confidence. Talk about can-do. He was under no pressure, other than what he might have put on himself, but he sank about a 20-footer at the 18th to win by the eight.

This is too ironic for words. McIlroy, the phenom from Northern Ireland, was No. 1 in the world with a bullet until St. Patrick's Day back in March.

And so at Oak Hill, on Wednesday, at 12:30, McIlroy will sit before a large media corps and do his pro-forma defending-champion interview. He is always graceful, and will be a gentleman, but talking about open wounds surely won't be his idea of a way to spend a summer afternoon.

He's heard the same questions all year. In sum, they are: What's gone wrong?

His answers will be the same. They've practically taken root as platitudes. He has no more idea what's gone wrong than, say, his golf shrink, swing coach or his father-confessor.

"I was sitting up here this time last year," he said, on arriving at Firestone, "probably not feeling as if my game was in great shape, and I'm sitting up here this year a lot more positive, so that's a great sign . . . this time last year, I was searching and really trying to figure out what I needed to do with my golf game to get it back where I wanted.

"This year I definitely don't feel like I'm searching for as many answers. It's just a matter of letting it all happen on the golf course.

"It's definitely close. It's just a matter of it all clicking into place and whether that's over one round or one week or whatever it is, I definitely don't feel like it's too far away. It's definitely close . . ."

Was that at the Masters? The U.S. Open? The echoes sure sounded familiar. Coming from the struggling lad who walked off in the second round of the Honda Classic, it seems to be a repeating refrain. Woods used to sing that song.

As to what has affected McIlroy's game, there are two prime suspects. One, that he met a beautiful young woman, Carol Wozniacki, pro tennis player. This theory is pretty much largely discounted. Everybody meets a beautiful young woman somewhere along the way, and survives.

The other is that McIlroy switched from the clubs that got him there, Titleist, to Nike. Golfers often change equipment in exchange for corporate-endorsement money. In McIlroy's case, this is said to be something like $20 million a year for 10 years.

No less an authority than Nick Faldo has clucked over this point. Faldo called it dangerous. He noted that he had done the same thing, and he recognized the symptoms.

McIlroy has discounted this point. But, in fact, in a surprising show-and-tell, he demonstrated some displeasure at the U.S. Open at Merion when, after hitting another unsatisfactory shot, leaned on his wedge until it bent. That scene is not likely to find its way into Nike commercials.

Something has throttled his game. Consider the show at Firestone. At the par-4 10th in the first round, he missed the fairway and then took four to get down from 30 yards short of the green. That was his first double-bogey. On Friday he hit just five fairways on a straight course, and doubled the par-4 14th after slicing deep into the trees and chunking a wedge shot (a new wedge, presumably).

All told, McIlroy hit 46 percent of the fairways. Again, Firestone is a pretty much straightaway course. Oak Hill is not. In the week before the PGA Championship he hit only 48 percent of the greens in regulation and averaged 1.6 putts per hole.

He shot 79 in the first round of the British Open. He said he was "brain dead" and "unconscious."

"I've become a little bit too emotionally involved with my golf over the past few months," McIlroy said then. "I've let it either get me excited or get me down, where I should really just not get too high or too low about it at all."

McIlroy visited Oak Hill, home of many trees, earlier this season. He came away saying nice, touring-pro-golfer-type things.

''When I think of the PGA Championship, I think of courses like this." McIlroy said. "This course is timeless. It's not only long, but it's hard to drive the ball well. You've got some chances out there. ''Then again, you've got a tough finish.''

Which looks exactly like what's facing McIlroy for 2013 - a tough finish.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional honors. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.

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