With the first major of this pandemic-hit season just around the corner, this week’s WGC-FedEx St Jude Championship in Memphis would be the ideal time for Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry to find some convincing form.
The emergence from a Covid-enforced three-month competitive lay-off has not seen either of the Irish pair at anywhere near their best, with McIlroy’s loss of his world number one ranking to Jon Rahm at the Memorial a fortnight ago only emphasising the struggle.
So the chance to regain some rhythm in an extended but still limited-field World Golf Championship event this weekend and hopefully find some form ahead of next week’s PGA Championship in San Francisco should suit both men as they prepare to tee off at TPC Southwind today.
McIlroy was demoted to number two in the world following Rahm’s Memorial victory, five months after regaining top spot for the first time since 2015 and he has a chance to win back the premier ranking at his first opportunity in Memphis.
The consistency of form that took the Holywood star to the season-ending Tour Championship and FedEx Series titles last August had stayed with McIlroy into the 2019-20 campaign with six top-five finishes including a victory in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Hong Kong last November.
The returns have diminished markedly post-lockdown, with a tie for 11th at the Travelers Championship the high point in four starts since the resumption and though McIlroy still leads the PGA Tour in scoring average at 68.899, the Memorial saw him post four consecutive rounds of 70 or more to finish T32.
That came after a week working with long-time coach Michael Bannon, after which McIlroy declared he was swinging well again though he has cited wrinkles in all aspects of late.
Returning to Memphis, where he finished T4 last year should help McIlroy regain some momentum, particularly with humid and showery weather in the forecast and there is a good chance that being back in the chasing pack behind Rahm could also spark a return to the heights.
He tees off today at 5:50pm Irish time alongside in-form world number four Webb Simpson and a still out of sorts Jordan Spieth.
Open champion Lowry will tee off at 1:30 with regular caddie Bo Martin on his bag in Tennessee following some paternity leave and the natural rapport between the pair can only help the world number 26 after a difficult few weeks on the course.
Three missed cuts in five starts since the resumption does not make for comfortable reading but Martin’s return to the fold and the guarantee of four competitive rounds could be the ideal recipe for a reversal in fortunes.
Graeme McDowell is also in action at TPC Southwind and looking to rebound from a difficult spell since returning to competition.
The Portrush star had returned to the world’s top 50 following his Saudi International victory over a strong field on the European Tour in February but post-lockdown has not been kind, with a missed cut at Memorial his fourth early finish in five starts.
Another seek a turnaround in form is defending champion Brooks Koepka but the only question hovering over Rahm’s head going into his 5:40pm first-round tee time this evening alongside Bryson DeChambeau and Rickie Fowler is how long will he be able to stay at the top of the rankings.
Rahm, 25, is Spain’s first number one since the late Seve Ballesteros and could lose his mantle if either McIlroy, No.3 Justin Thomas or Simpson wins on Sunday but that was furthest from his thoughts during his pre-tournament media conference.
"Nowadays it's really tough to determine one player (as the best)," the 2019 Irish Open champion said.
"Brooks is having a hard year right now but he has won four majors in the last few years. Rory played amazing last year.
"It's hard to dictate one player alone, but it would be foolish for me to say that I'm not here thinking I'm the best player.
"And I think all the great players who have got to this point believe they are the best and I think you have to try to prove that every week."
There will also be Irish interest in the PGA Tour’s opposite-field Barracuda Championship starting today in California with Seamus Power teeing off at Tahoe Mountain Club but Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington will not be joining his fellow 2016 Olympian.
Harrington had signalled his intent to play ahead of next week’s PGA Championship, the tournament in which he won his third major title in 2008. Yet the Dubliner is yet to decide whether he will make the trip to San Francisco’s TPC Harding Park.