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Arizona not the place to judge McIlroy's transition

ESPN staff
February 20, 2013
Rory McIlroy is hoping for a successful week in Arizona © Getty Images
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Plenty of eyes will be on Rory McIlroy when he tees it up in Arizona this week. And many of them, rightly or wrongly, will also be on the Nike clubs the Irishman will be using.

McIlroy returns to competitive action for the first time since floundering at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in the middle of January, his first appearance of 2013 and his first tournament using his new Nike weaponry. When that appearance did not go well - McIlroy missed the cut and, unlike playing partner Tiger Woods, did not even have a rogue two-shot penalty as an excuse - many gleefully suggested that the new clubs were to blame.

As McIlroy reflected on Tuesday: "I knew (being criticised) would happen if I didn't play well, and I probably put a little bit too much pressure on myself to play well because of that."

So, when McIlroy gets his WGC Match Play Championship opener against Shane Lowry underway on Wednesday, there will be plenty of pressure on him to perform - with numerous Nike executives no doubt watching on with a certain amount of apprehension. A tournament victory would be the best thing possible for McIlroy (who was second, behind Hunter Mahan, 12 months ago) and his new endorsers; an early exit would lead to plenty more gleeful (if presumptuous) stories about his Nike switch.

"I feel like I'm coming into this event prepared and ready and swinging the club well, which is nice, and I'm hitting the ball well," McIlroy noted. "Hopefully that can translate into playing some good golf and getting quite far into this week."

The problem, for McIlroy and the giant sporting company, is that the WGC Match Play is perhaps the most unpredictable event in the PGA Tour calendar. McIlroy could play fantastically well against Lowry and still suffer a defeat - just as he could play erratically for four days and still find himself in the final four due to the greater failings of his opponents. It is not a tournament where it is easy to see if the cream is on top.

While the last four winners have all been decent players, for example, none subsequently went on to claim one of the year's major championships. Tiger Woods excluded, only Geoff Ogilvy (2006) has ever managed that feat in the competition's 14-year history.

As an indicator of overall form, then, it is far from reliable.

"It's a very hard tournament to prepare for 100 per cent because you can go out and play nice nicely on Wednesday [and] could go home, you could scrap through - [or] not be particularly pleased with your game [and] go through," Justin Rose said on Tuesday.

"It's a bit of a 'pinch of salt' week, in terms of how you view it for the rest of the year. But you've definitely got to try and get into each match individually and just do what's needed, do what's required, and that's what it comes down to."

But all that doesn't really help McIlroy, who will still be pilloried if he loses to world No. 68 Lowry in his first round match. Just as questions will be asked about Tiger Woods if he continues his streak of failing to get beyond the second round of the event since 2008.

Equally significantly for McIlroy, however, is the presence on the horizon of the first major of the year - The Masters in April. Having chosen to make a relaxed start to the 2013 season, the Northern Irishman will not be particularly battle-ready if he does suffer an early exit in Arizona.

With only six weeks to go before the golfing fraternity descends on Augusta National, McIlroy will have left himself little time to adjust fully to his new clubs and feel properly battle-hardened.

He is currently pencilled to play in three further PGA Tour events prior to The Masters, so perhaps both concerns will be erased over the course of what he will hope to be 216 holes of competitive golf.

Of course, if the worst comes to the worst, those three tournaments will only last 108 holes. If that is how things pan out, then perhaps we can panic about the Northern Irishman's form and the detrimental impact of his change in equipment.

But the World Match Play, whether his participation lasts 10 holes or more than 110, will still be too soon to pass judgements of that kind.

"I'm actually much happier with how I'm swinging the club," was McIlroy's attempt at reassuring the wider golfing world - note the focus on his swing, not the clubs themselves. "I feel like I've turned the corner with my swing.

"I've got it back on track. … It's been really nice to have this break. I feel like I needed it, and I'm really excited to be back out on tour."

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