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Continued: House of champs: Even if Woods, McIlroy falter, expect worthy British Open winner at Muirfield

  • Article by: PAUL NEWBERRY , AP National Writer
  • Last update: July 16, 2013 - 3:00 AM

Given what has happened here before, this would seem the most appropriate spot for Tiger Woods, ranked No. 1 in the world, to end the longest major-less drought of his career — more than five years and counting. If not him, how about second-ranked Rory McIlroy, just 24 but already a two-time major champion and less than a year removed from his runaway victory at the PGA Championship?

But Woods is coming back from an injured elbow, so no one is quite sure what kind of shape he'll be in when the shots start counting for real at Muirfield. Even when healthy, the aura of invincibility he once held over the rest of the field has slowly faded away since the last of his 14 major titles at the 2008 U.S. Open.

As for McIlroy, his game is in total disarray after he switched to new clubs and a new ball this season, in addition to dealing with off-the-course issues involving his management team.

"I'm very surprised that just 11 months (since that eight-shot win at Kiawah Island) he would've become an afterthought," Azinger said. "He is adrift."

Woods still draws the biggest crowds, and there's no denying his fellow competitors keep an eye out for him on the leaderboard. But, while he's resumed his dominating ways in regular PGA Tour events since changing his swing and battling through well-documented personal problems, he no longer looks unbeatable on the biggest stages.

"Tiger is in a different mode where he's winning regular tournaments, but he gets to the majors and something happens," Faldo said. "The self-belief you have to have, maybe there's a little dent in there. He hits the wrong shot at the wrong time, where before Tiger would hit the right shot at the right time."

Azinger said Woods' issues are more physical than mental at the moment, all because of a body that seems to be aging much quicker than his still relatively young age (37).

"You can't play good golf," Azinger said, "with a bad elbow."

There's nothing wrong with McIlroy physically, but he's suddenly playing second fiddle to players such as Adam Scott and Justin Rose, the winners of the year's first two majors.

When Scott captured the Masters in a playoff, McIlroy was never much of a factor on the way to finishing 25th. When Rose held on to win the U.S. Open, the young Irishman limped to the end in 41st.

From Azinger's perspective, McIlroy lost the baseline on his game when he changed up all that equipment. When something goes wrong, he's not sure what might be contributing to the problem — the club or the ball. He's trying to figure it all out again, and that's not easy to do when you're in the midst of the season, even for a player with his enormous skills.

Faldo, meanwhile, urged McIlroy to eliminate some of the distractions that have cropped up since he surged to stardom.

"You have a window of opportunity," the three-time Open champion said. "That's my only words of wisdom to Rory. You have, say, a 20-year window as an athlete. Concentrate on golf, nothing else. Hopefully when you retire, in your 40s or 50s, you have another 40 years to enjoy it. So just concentrate on golf."

Even if Woods falters again and McIlroy continues to struggle, Muirfield will likely produce a worthy champion.

That's just the way it goes at this place.

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