32. Father. Husband. Hair tighter. Hair greyer. Happier than ever in his Florida home. It’s fair to say Rory McIlroy is in a much different place to when he last visited Kiawah Island.
“A lot has changed,” McIlroy said. “I’m in a completely different place in my life. Everything has changed, really. I feel like a completely different person. I think a lot has changed for the better. I’m standing up here probably more confident in myself, happier with where I am in my life. Just sort of enjoying everything, enjoying life.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t in a good place when he made the trip to South Carolina in 2012. McIlroy, the golfer, was at the height of his powers then, adding a second Major crown to his trophy cabinet with an eight-shot demolition of the field when the Ocean Course last played host to the PGA Championship. Nick Faldo suggested that despite it being nine years on, this could be seen as another Rory title defence. McIlroy had other ideas:
“I think I finished tied 32nd last year in this tournament, so no, I don’t feel like that at all.”
Which is an interesting answer in itself given McIlroy was quoted in February of this year when looking ahead to his return to Kiawah: “I do hope, come the time, that my game is in good shape to ensure I am a serious contender. It will also be my own, personal defence after a nine-year interval of a title that meant so much to the 23-year old me.”
Whatever about the changes in McIlroy the man since 2012, the changes in McIlroy the player since February 2021 have been – career-wise – just as dramatic. Swing-coach Pete Cowen has been his most publicised addition and that McIlroy change of tack when talking of title defences this week is precisely what the pair have been working on; it’s time to forget the player you were and focus on the one you want to be.
That labour has already bore fruit, sooner than even McIlroy imagined after winning two weeks ago at another happy hunting ground of his, Quail Hollow.
“I’ve always said when you’re in the thick of it, it always seems further away than it is,” McIlroy said of the win. “I guess the big thing that I was really encouraged with at Quail Hollow is it’s my first time really getting myself into contention in a while, and to have those thoughts and movements sort of hold up under that pressure, trying to win a golf tournament, coming down some really tough holes, that’s what I was really pleased with.
“The two shots on 16, the tee shot into 17, obviously the tee shot into the last wasn’t great, but I got away with it. But those three shots coming — to hit the shots exactly the way I wanted to and play those holes very well with a lead, that’s something that I haven’t been able to do probably over the last 18 months, going back to the start of 2020. I was very encouraged with that.”
For McIlroy fans, listening to Rory speak in his press conference was encouraging in itself. He’s always box-office behind the mic, sometimes honest to a fault, piling pressure upon his shoulders where none previously existed, but there was a clear direction in everything he said on Tuesday, a consistency to it and a sense of harmony no doubt influenced by his back-room team, now further bolstered by golf’s great mind-guru, Dr. Bob Rotella.
“Look, it’s nothing that I haven’t heard before, but Bob just puts it in a way that is so simple and can make you laugh and some of the stories that he can tell and some of the stories that you can relate to yourself in some ways. I got a lot out of it.”
And that’s the exciting thing for McIlroy fans, these new ideas not only seem to be getting through to the world number 7 but they’re already translating into results. That’s not to say this week won’t be different. Winning the Wells Fargo is one thing. Winning a Major is quite the other. But after seven years of trying with little success at golf’s big four events, McIlroy goes into the PGA Championship holding pre-tournament favouritism, and there’s belief there now that he’s not about to shirk the challenge.
“I’m happy with where my game is, so I guess if I go out and play my game and do what I know that I can do, then I can see myself shooting good scores on this golf course,” he said.
“Whether that means I win or not, that’s partly up to me, but that’s partly on how the other 155 guys in the field play. I’ve just got to go out there, play my game, and if I play my game somewhat close to the best of my ability, I’m sure I’ll have a good chance.”