Ahead of this week’s Players Championship, Rory McIlroy is adamant his best golf remains more than good enough to win the biggest tournaments, but he concedes he could improve mentally to aid future success.
McIlroy was speaking from TPC Sawgrass after taking Monday to clear his head having succumbed to the devilish conditions at Bay Hill over the weekend.
The 32-year old signed for a pair of 76s having opened the tournament with an ominous seven-under par 65. Although an eight-over par weekend ensued, McIlroy hinted that his first round effort is a fairer reflection as to where his game is at, while accepting he could’ve been mentally tougher over a brutal weekend at Arnie’s place.
“You never want to go out and shoot eight-over over a weekend, but I didn’t feel like it was as bad as that,” McIlroy explained. “I guess it was just more maybe me just getting frustrated and mentally not being able to handle that challenge a bit.
“Yeah, there’s certainly golf courses that make you a little tentative and careful and maybe throw you off your game a bit, but I think if you’re confident in where your game is at, then it shouldn’t really affect you that much.”
McIlroy certainly let his frustration get the better of him at Bay Hill, most notably when he snapped his wedge over his knee following two poor chips on the par-5 12th on Sunday.
With rain forecast for the first two days at Sawgrass, there’ll be no fear of having to contend with lifeless greens this time out, and although the 2019 champion opened with a 79 at this tournament 12 months ago, McIlroy believes his game is in a much stronger place to go and contend this week having worked through his swing demons.
“I came in here last year not very confident in my golf game. I didn’t feel like I was playing well. I sort of had a two-way miss going. I was missing it left, missing it right. So I’m a lot more comfortable with my game coming in this year,” McIlroy said, having worked with Pete Cowen for a time last year before returning exclusively to lifelong coach Michael Bannon.
“I don’t want to tempt fate, but there would have to be a drastic change in my game from now until Thursday for me to go and shoot 79 in the first round, but it is golf and you never know.
“I just feel much more comfortable with where my game is, where my swing is at. Look, it’s always important to get off to good starts in golf tournaments, and I obviously didn’t do that last year, but in 2019 I did. I got off to a great start the first two days, and that set me up to have a solid weekend and go on and win.
“I’m playing Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. The weather forecast looks like it’s going to be the same for everyone, just looks like rain pretty much all day those two days.
“Yeah, just try to handle the conditions as best as we can and try to shoot a couple of solid scores and get through to the weekend and go from there.”
There’s been splashes of brilliance in McIlroy’s play, particularly since a confidence boosting Sunday singles win over Xander Schauffele at the Ryder Cup, but sprinkles of doubt also remain in McIlroy’s mental fortitude.
The weekend at Bay Hill wasn’t an isolated incident. At the same tournament 12 months ago, Rory opened with a 66 and closed with a 76. At the Hero World Challenge, he opened with a 66 only to reverse with a moving day 75. Similarly, he carded a moving day 74 at the Tour Championship to fall out of contention, and opened the DP World Tour Championship with a 65 before his challenge faded with a 74 on Sunday in Dubai last November.
“I’ve basically got a 50 percent top ten record in my career, and that is a pretty high level of consistency,” McIlroy answered, when asked if he ever wished if he was a more boring golf, a question nibbling at some of his Jekyll and Hyde performances
“Could I have won more tournaments? Of course I could have won more tournaments, but so could everyone. Everyone could say that. Sometimes you need the lows to learn about what you need to do to go forward.
“I’ve always welcomed those low times because that’s where growth comes from. That’s where improvement comes from and reassessing where you are. I feel like in life you need those low times to sort of figure out, okay, this is where I am. This is what I need to do to go forward, and you just keep trying to go forward.”
Above all else, McIlroy has identified his mental game as something he would like to improve. Be it dealing with adversity, or dealing with contention, McIlroy is not as bulletproof as he was when he picked up four Majors, and he identified perhaps the strongest mind of them all – Tiger Woods’ – as one he’d love to try and emulate.
“I think one of his biggest attributes was his head and his mind and how good he was in that regard, and that’s something I’m always still trying to work on,” McIlroy said.
“I think I’ve got most of the physical aspects down, but he was certainly head and shoulders above the rest when it came to the mental side of things. That’s something I’d love to try to keep improving on and try to incorporate into my own game.”
For now, McIlroy’s belief remains steadfast in his physical game. The mental side of things may need work, yet despite golf’s top-5 packing fresh and fearless blood in its pecking order, the world number 6 has no doubt as to who the best player in the world is on any given Sunday.
“I can’t control what those guys do,” McIlroy said, who won twice last year at the CJ Cup and Wells Fargo.
“All I can do is go out and play the best golf that I can, and if that’s good enough to win tournaments, that’s great, and if it’s not, then you have to try to make improvements.
“I still feel like my best golf is more than good enough to win the biggest golf tournaments in the world, so I don’t worry about that.”