The promising Augusta practice round that persuaded Rory McIlroy to change putters
Rory McIlroy is looking at using a replica of the putter with which he won his first two majors more than a decade ago as he seeks finally to end his Masters void and so become just the sixth player in history to complete the career grand slam.
With only two weeks to go until the first major of the season, some might raise their eyebrows at the world No 3 making such an important change, particularly as he is paid approximately $20million per annum to play TaylorMade.
Indeed, for the last four years he has employed a mallet type of putter made by his backer, barring the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, where he came in a tie fourth wielding a classic Scotty Cameron model.
That week saw him put the Phantom X 11.5 in the bag, but he quickly returned to the TaylorMade Spider X Hydroblast and enjoyed plenty of success.
Last year, he returned to No 1 in the rankings after one of his best seasons with the flat-stick. He finished 16th in the Tour’s 2022 putting standings, but so far in this campaign he has gone alarmingly backwards, currently positioned in 173rd on the charts (although that does not include his performance at the Dubai Desert Classic, where he performed well on the greens when winning).
At The Players two weeks ago, McIlroy looked lost on the undulating surfaces at Sawgrass as he missed his first cut in seven months. Again, the evidence was written large in the stats as he finished 125th in the “strokes gained putting” calculations in the 144-man field. McIlroy decided enough was enough and went to the replica for the catchily-named Studio Select Newport GSS Prototype that has been specially built and which he took on a scouting trip to Augusta last week.
McIlroy politely declined to comment when approached by Telegraph Sport here on the range at Austin Country Club on Tuesday as he prepared for the first day of the £16.5 million Dell WGC Match Play which begins on Wednesday. But Golf Channel quoted the 33-year-old as saying “I loved it on the greens of the Augusta National”.
McIlroy played 36 holes there and despite a pinch of salt - if not a JCB load of bunker sand - routinely being required when listening to rumours of practice rounds, the reconnaissance clearly went well. One report claimed that McIlroy remarkably needed only 19 putts in one of his rounds and, regardless of the usual hyperbole, that will excite his multitude of admirers who remember that young champion in the early years of the last decade who was fearless on the greens at Congressional and Kiawah Island when he prevailed by eight strokes in the 2011 US Open and 2012 USPGA respectively.
There have also been whispers of his tee game suddenly returning to its immaculate and imposing self. At Sawgrass, McIlroy revealed he felt obliged to ditch the driver which launched him back to the summit because of fears the wear and tear over 12 months had rendered the face illegal. He reverted to a copy, but even with the might of the equipment-making Goliath behind him could not find the same “feel”.
So McIlroy switched it up once more, keeping the same driver head but fitting it with a Fujikura Ventus TR Blue 6x shaft that is half-an-inch shorter than his previous Ventus Black 6X. Pete Cowen, his former coach, described to Telegraph Sport the benefits this could bring.
“It is designed to keep shot dispersion tighter and more stable in change of direction and impact,” he said. “A lot of players with lots of speed are using it.”
McIlroy will have at least three rounds here to bed in these changes, starting with his showdown against Scott Stallings, the world No 62. Two other Americans in Keegan Bradley and Denny McCarthy are in his group, with the winner of the round-robin pool going through to the weekend knockout stages.
With Sunday’s winner collecting almost £3million (more than double the £1.3million picked up for lifting this title in 2015) there is obviously plenty on the line here and even more so considering this is the last time this WGC Match Play will be hosted here and perhaps, anywhere. The field boasts 64 of the world’s top 76, led by defending champion Scottie Scheffler who prevailed at The Players in such dominant style.
Yet the focus is also on Augusta, where again Scheffler will be out to retain his crown. McIlroy is taking next week off before arriving in Georgia where he will attempt for a ninth time to join Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in the exclusive club of male players who have won all four majors.