MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Rory McIlroy stood on the 16th fairway and absolutely laced a 4-iron, watching, satisfied, as the ball stopped a foot and a half from the hole. He putted for eagle. One of the amateurs in his group -- speaking from a place of awe -- asked what it felt like to hit a ball like that.
"Hopefully, like normal," said McIlroy.
Which is where the FedEx St. Jude golf tournament comes in.
The man is here to reclaim his normal. To recover his golf game. To -- from a golf perspective, at least -- get well.
Normal for McIlroy used to be extraordinary. It used to be the sort of golf that carried him to the rank of No. 1 in the world at the age of 22.
A year ago, McIlroy destroyed the field and the course at Congressional, winning the U.S. Open by 8 strokes and posting the lowest score in tournament history. Thursday, he teed off at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, trying to avoid missing a fourth straight cut.
"This week wasn't included on my schedule up until a couple weeks ago," is how McIlroy put it, delicately.
But then he missed the cut at the BMW PGA Championship. After previously missing the cut at the Players Championship. Suddenly, some more practice seemed like a good idea.
So McIroy committed to play at Tournament Players Club at Southwind this week.
In other words, the kid needs Memphis. Needs the healing power of sun and barbecue before next week's U.S. Open title defense. True, McIlroy wouldn't have come here but for his recent turn of fortune. But you think that bothers anyone in this town?
This is the home of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. People come here to get better all the time. McIroy's caddie wore a bib Wednesday painted with the word "hope." Never mind the snarky comments of Nicklaus, who plainly thought McIlroy should skip this tournament and go straight to the U.S. Open site.
"Not to disparage the Memphis tournament, but nobody remembers who won last year in Memphis," said Jack Nicklaus said. McIlroy didn't exactly do well at Jack's place last month, when he missed the cut at the Memorial -- Nicklaus' tournament -- by shooting a second-round 79.
Not to disparage Nicklaus, but has the man gone off his meds? Nobody remembers who won his tournament last year, either. Heck, it's hard to remember major winners anymore. But why take a shot at the tournament whose sponsor also happens to sponsor golf's points championship?
Beyond that, isn't there something honorable about McIlroy trying to reclaim his form by playing more tournaments? Tiger Woods may be able to pick and choose the tournaments he plays, but is that the approach golf's most famous ambassador should endorse? As it happens, McIlroy got the best of both worlds, in a weird way.
When he missed the cut at Memorial, that freed him to fly to San Francisco to play Olympic Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
So he knows what to expect from the course. But does he know what to expect from himself? That's the bigger mystery these days. Golf is all about the struggle, of course. Every great golfer has been through slumps. As spectators, we like to focus on single moments that suggest everything is well again. See the shot Tiger Woods hit on 16 Sunday. Presto, the man is back!
Or not. Woods was supposed to be back before this year's Masters, too.
You may remember how that turned out.
So it was that McIlroy's shot at No. 16 Wednesday seemed to be a harbinger of good things to come. Until he plunked the ball in the water at No. 18. Harbingers may not be what they used to be.
But McIlroy was unfailingly gracious. He signed about a billion autographs. At one point, a reporter asked McIlory if playing the week before the Open was "a one-time thing."
"Not necessarily," he said. "If this week I play well and go into the U.S. Open feeling really good about my game and I play well there, it's something I might do in the future."
So here's to the struggling Irishman. Here's to his decision to try the Memphis cure.
"If I win in Memphis this week," said McIlroy. "I'll definitely remember who won it next year."