Rory McIlroy enters somewhat of a home game this week in Rochester leaning on a fresh mental approach that he hopes can unlock a fifth Major title at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
The hometown of his wife, Erica, McIlroy has enjoyed a healthy helping of early support as fans look to see how the four-time Major winner responds to his disappointing missed cut at last month’s Masters.
In many ways McIlroy will be eager to see how he responds too, revealing that he’s been working on adopting less expectations heading into golf’s biggest events.
“Less expectations. Just trying to sort of be in a good spot with taking what comes and not thinking about things too much, not getting ahead of myself,” McIlroy told a press conference on Tuesday.
“I’m just trying to go out there, play a good first hole of the tournament, and then once I do that, try to play a good second hole and just sort of go from there.”
The power of now is a potent tool in the game of life, and in golf. At Augusta, the ghosts of Masters past must’ve tempted McIlroy away from the confines of the here and now to thoughts of how it would feel to slip into a Green Jacket in the Butler Cabin that Sunday.
He arrived to Georgia the week before the event where legend grew of McIlroy’s 19 putts in practice, how well he was hitting the ball and how high hopes had risen of finally cracking the code to golfing immortality.
After missing the cut, however, McIlroy was left reeling, opting out of the following week’s RBC Heritage at Hilton Head; Rory exercising his right to self-preservation after an almighty body-blow amongst the pines. Has it taken a while to finally rid himself of that Augusta hangover?
“Yeah, golf is golf, and it happens and you’re going to have bad days,” he says. “It wasn’t really the performance of Augusta that’s hard to get over, it’s just more the mental aspect and the deflation of it and trying to get your mind in the right place to start going forward again.
“I think I’m close. I think I’ve made some good strides even from Quail Hollow a couple weeks ago [where he finished T47]. I’m seeing some better things, better start lines, certainly just some better golf shots.
“A little more sure of where I’m going to start the ball and sort of a more consistent shot pattern. But yeah, look, we’ll get out there and see and play. I expect to go out there, and if I can execute the way that I feel like I can, then I still believe that I’m one of the best players in the world and I can produce good golf to have a chance of winning this week.”
McIlroy’s under no illusions as to the size of the test ahead. The 34-year old believes he’s more familiar with the course than the majority of the field but that’s not to say he’ll be relying on local knowledge, rather…
“Discipline, I think,” he says. “You’ve got to keep it out of those fairway bunkers. They’re very, very penal.
“What Andrew Green has done with the green complexes and sort of spread them out and you see all these extra sections, back rights and back lefts, I think if someone can keep their discipline and not start firing at those pins and know that middles of the greens is a pretty good leave on most holes, I think that’s the [key].
“It’s a long golf course, and par and length is going to be an advantage. But I think even more of an advantage is making sure that you’re hitting into these greens from the fairways. It’s a combination of everything, but I think discipline is going to be a huge factor this week.”
When McIlroy was winning majors, discipline likely wasn’t a word in his lexicon. He was a freewheeling juggernaut; a fearless competitor with a ruthless streak that ear-marked the Holywood man as the heir apparent to Tiger’s throne.
Nine years without a Major would’ve been unthinkable so asked if he ever goes back to watch himself in full flight, particularly at the PGA Championship in 2014 where four rounds in the 60s at Valhalla catapulted him to his fourth Major crown, McIlroy said:
The two-part question continued – ‘There was a ruthlessness about the way you were that final day. Are you still that way?’
To which McIlroy answered – “Yeah. I mean, again, I find being that way pretty exhausting in life in general, to be that ruthless and that — it’s not as if I can’t get into that mode, but I don’t feel like I need to be that way to be successful on the golf course.”
It’s hard to imagine a scenario that involves a flick of a switch being ignored if it was indeed that simple. The fearlessness of youth is now in McIlroy’s rearview mirror. Now 34, he must find another way to get the job done but whatever happens, in terms of what defines success and failure going forward for McIlroy, he maintains he’s happy with his lot.
“If I don’t win another tournament for the rest of my career, I still see my career as a success,” he says. “I still stand up here as a successful person in my eyes. That’s what defines that.”
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