By DOUG FERGUSON
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Down to his last chance, Rory McIlroy knew this was no time to be riding the brakes.
“I have to be aggressive,” he said Tuesday.
McIlroy wasn’t gripping a golf club. He was behind the wheel of an electric BMW i3 in a vacant parking lot at an amusement park north of Chicago, racing against the clock and against Gary Woodland in a charity event.
They each had four attempts around a makeshift track of straightaways and hairpin turns. McIlroy needed to shave 4 seconds off his best time for a $100,000 scholarship to be awarded in his name through the Evans Scholars Foundation. Hitting a cone added 2 seconds to the time.
Dust kicked up when he took the car down the straightaway. Tires screeched around the turns.
Cones went flying.
“I lost track of how many I hit,” McIlroy said with a laugh when he got out of the car.
It wasn’t much different from how his golf has gone this year.
McIlroy left the racing behind and drove at a more reasonable speed to Conway Farms Golf Club to get ready for the BMW Championship, the third FedEx Cup playoff event and perhaps the last tournament. That’s surprising for a guy who started the year at No. 1 in the world.
He is No. 41 in the FedEx Cup standings. McIlroy figures he needs to finish among the top seven against a 70-man field to be among the 30 players who advance to the Tour Championship with a shot at the $10 million prize. That doesn’t sound so hard, except it would be his best finish in five months.
McIlroy doesn’t have the market cornered in disappointment.
Luke Donald was still No. 1 in the world just over a year ago, and he was No. 2 when the season began. He has made it to the Tour Championship every year since 2009, so often that going to East Lake should be an afterthought. Donald, however, is No. 54 in the FedEx Cup.
“I think someone who was at the pinnacle of the game not too long ago and is now 54th on the FedEx Cup, it’s been disappointing,” Donald said. “It’s been very hard this year. It’s been frustrating at times, and I’ve had to make some tough decisions in terms of changing swing coaches. But I feel good about where things are headed, and I’m excited about the future. This year, I still have time to rescue it.”
McIlroy isn’t about to give up on his year, either.
His issues stem from the short game, though there have been plenty of distractions off the golf course that are subject to speculation — swapping out his entire set of golf equipment by signing a big endorsement contract with Nike, and then deciding to leave management companies for the second time in 18 months. That situation still has not been resolved, and it can be awkward to have two managers around him at the same time.
There are signs McIlroy is getting closer. He has been held back the last two tournaments by making eight double bogeys, which have kept him from at least having a sniff of contention going into the final day. What really troubles him, though, is losing shots around the green.
McIlroy went to the Bahamas during the week away from golf, comparing statistics from last year to this year, and reaching some clear conclusions.
He was mildly surprised to see that two ball-striking statistics were about the same — 60th this year and last in greens hit in regulation, 145th in driving accuracy this year, compared with 156th a year ago. Then again, statistics don’t tell the whole story. McIlroy went from missing fairways by inches to missing them by a mile earlier in the year.
“I’m driving the ball better. I’m hitting a few more greens. That isn’t the issue,” he said. “I’m just not getting up-and-down as much as I used to. All I did for the last four days was practice those things.”
A few numbers he crunched left him mystified.
“Here’s a stat for you,” he said. “I was 169th in putts per round in the first round. And I’m first in the second round. That’s a strange one. … But that’s the whole thing. It’s the short game. That’s where I’m throwing shots away, taking four shots to get down. I’ve just got to cut out the mistakes.”
The sooner the better or his season will be over. McIlroy said he would be more surprised if the year ended without going to East Lake for the Tour Championship than failing to win a major. The latter is far more important, to be clear, but let him explain.
“You have to play really good golf in that one week, four weeks a year,” he said. “Everything has to come together, and you need to get a few breaks. But over the course of the season, I feel like I should play well enough to get to East Lake. I didn’t expect to be in this position.”
Now he’s down to his last chance. Play well. Drive hard. Try not to hit the cones.