To say that the 2013 PGA Tour season hasn't gone quite like Rory McIlroy hoped it would is an understatement—that is, unless the golfer had hoped for abysmal play, a PR nightmare and lingering questions about his decision to switch equipment sponsors. He likely also hadn't hoped to spark a discussion about his ability to withstand the scrutiny and pressure his success laid at the doorstep of his new $11 million Florida home.
Given this, what does McIlroy need to get on track at the Wells Fargo? Certainly, he has made many of the right moves since his untimely departure from the Honda Classic in early March. McIlroy made a seemingly genuine, sincere mea culpa and fired a final-round 65 in his next event following the incident (the WGC Cadillac Championship) to finish tied for eighth.
He was a runner-up at the Valero Texas Open, again with a superb final round (66). And somehow, the No. 2 player in the world seemed to get into and out of Augusta National without anyone really noticing (I'm told he did in fact play four rounds of golf, though) en route to a T 25 finish.
While not brilliant, McIlroy's total of two over at the Masters in 2013 was three strokes better than his total at the tournament in 2012. Again, this looks very much like progress for the young man from Northern Ireland.
Last year at the Wells Fargo Championship, McIlroy lost in a three-way playoff. Had McIlroy made a 15-footer on his final hole, the tournament would have been his. Likewise, a little better performance in the playoff would have netted McIlroy a victory. Regardless, last year he improved his play at Quail Hollow significantly from 2011, when he shot 75, 72 to miss the cut.
Obviously, McIlroy would prefer to be returning to Charlotte as the defending champion. However, he'll take confidence from his play in the event last year and will look to finish one better this year (that is, win the thing).
Beyond this, McIlroy won the tournament in 2010 with a brilliant final-round 62 that was something of a coming-out party for the 20-year-old. All these things taken together, and exempting any negativity bred in 2013, Rory should feel right at home in Charlotte this week.
Nike's new poster boy isn't in a "must-win" situation. A top-10 finish, with the majority of his rounds in the 60s, will be a strong indication that he's on track heading to the Players Championship next week.
Let's look at McIlroy's stats thus far in 2013. He's better in strokes gained-putting and greens in regulation than he was in 2012. He's making more birdies, but his scoring average is nearly two strokes higher.
What's the problem? Well, statistically, not much, save for a series of regrettable performances on moving day: McIlroy's third-round scoring average is 73.00. That's a good way to put oneself in a hole heading into the final round. However, McIlroy has rebounded on Sundays this year: He's fourth in final-round scoring average at 67.50 (that's right, a whopping 5.5 strokes better than he plays on Saturdays).
A cursory glance at the rest of his numbers reveals that McIlroy is much the same, statistically speaking, as he was last year. Of course, he should ultimately be a bit better in everything this year if he were continuing the hot streak, which carried him into the offseason, since his starts between the Masters and the PGA Championship last year weren't exactly brilliant (I believe we were even debating introducing the dreaded "s" word to describe his play at the time).
The formula for a strong showing for McIlroy this week is pretty simple: He must do what he did at the course last year and in 2010 and head into the weekend with confidence. He must trust that the fundamentals of his swing are solid (following a post-Honda tuneup) and that his knowledge of the course and past performance are more than sufficient to win.
All this by way of saying that on paper, there's no reason Rory McIlroy shouldn't notch a top-10 finish at the Wells Fargo Championship this week. If he does this, he'll certainly be on track as he prepares for two significant tournaments (The Players Championship and The Memorial Tournament) and the season's second major.