Looking for the right balance

Golf : Rory McIlroy is finding it tough to fine-tune his game, given the packed calendar

Looking for the right balance

Rory McIlroy’s success is partly built on making quick calculations, such as determining the yardage remaining to the flag after a booming drive on a long par 4. But the math did not add up on a column of figures he recently studied.

An accounting of a recent 12-month chunk of his life revealed that McIlroy had spent 287 nights in hotels and the equivalent of 14 days on airplanes. In a 365-day span, he had 18 days off after fulfilling his professional obligations — hardly enough time to recharge, much less to refine his game.

The continuous loop of golf seasons creates a time crunch that is especially acute for McIlroy, who began a new PGA Tour season last Thursday with a 4-under-par 68 at the Frys.com Open. After the tournament, McIlroy will head abroad for the conclusion of the 2015 European Tour campaign.

Since the start of the calendar year, McIlroy’s world ranking has slipped from No 1 to No 3, behind Jordan Spieth and Jason Day. Their superior short games, McIlroy said, led him to address in practice “a few of the areas that I’m not maybe quite as good as they are.”

Ball-striking carried McIlroy to the summit and kept him there for 95 non-consecutive weeks. His descent prompted him to reassess his approach of spending more time on the range than on the green. Like many athletes, McIlroy prefers the ego boost of working on what he does well to the discomfort of confronting his shortcomings. Ahead of the Frys.com Open, he appeared committed to following the example of Phil Mickelson, who took what he had read in a college psychology text about overcoming a fear by facing it and applied it to golf by working on uncomfortable shots until they become strengths.

“It’s just trying to keep the strengths as strong as I can and chip away at the weaknesses,” McIlroy said. “I sometimes felt last season I neglected those weaknesses too much to focus on the strength. For me, that is my ball-striking and hitting fairways and greens and giving myself plenty of opportunities for birdies. You can do that all day, and you’re going to play well and have good finishes, but I felt like my putting definitely could have been better this year.”

But how will he carve out the time to improve on anything? The 2014-15 PGA Tour season ended on the final weekend in September. McIlroy, 26, is playing during four of the next six weeks, including the final three events in Europe, where he is the season-long points leader.

In a golf utopia, officials from all of the world’s tours would get together and arrange their schedules to accommodate a period of six to eight weeks without a single competitive event. That would allow the players a chance to catch their breath, build their stamina and rebuild their swings and would afford the fans of the game a chance to miss it.

In reality, the game’s gatekeepers overschedule their marquee players in the name of pleasing their corporate partners and providing tournament starts for as many players as possible. Each golfer is left to build his own breaks into the schedule. McIlroy plans to take off all of December and most of January, meaning he will skip the Tournament of Champions, for which he qualified by winning two tour events in 2014-15.

Of course, as McIlroy pointed out, he already had an unscheduled layoff after spraining his left ankle in July while playing pickup soccer with friends. The injury, which sidelined him for six weeks, caused him to miss the British Open. He returned for four tournaments, starting with the PGA Championship, before the season ran out on him.

“I guess coming back at the PGA for me was a start of a new season,” McIlroy said, adding, “This is sort of a continuation of that. Even though it’s the new PGA Tour season, I feel like I’m in the middle of a nice little run to the end of the year.”

McIlroy, a four-time major winner, can complete a career Grand Slam with a victory in the Masters. His focus is his performance in the top events, which is why three victories worldwide between January and May did not impress him much.

“I feel like I’m at a point in my career where a great season is defined by major championships,” McIlroy said, adding, “So it was a lost year in the fact that I didn’t win a major and add to that tally.”

McIlroy is playing this week to fulfill an obligation he made in 2012 to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. McIlroy promised to play in the Frys.com Open at least once from 2013 through 2015 after he had been freed by the tour to participate in a lucrative nonsanctioned event in Turkey that took place the same week as this event.

McIlroy travelled for the event from Europe, adding a few thousand more airline miles and a few more nights away from home to his yearly totals. “It’s crazy numbers,” he said, adding, “No way I could sustain that for the rest of my career.”

But he does not intend to slow down anytime soon. “For now, that’s the life I live,” McIlroy said. “I’m enjoying it.”


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