Rory McIlroy’s stagnant play has been well documented over the last year. How do you go from winning the PGA Championship last year by eight strokes — a record — and then fall into such a state of disrepair? So much so that your new Nike clubs have been deemed to be suspect — or at least your decision to change clubs for the money was — and Gary Player feels compelled to give you relationship advice?
Well, Rory has slowly been working his way back into form and in a wide-ranging interview in the PGA Championship media center at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York, he talked about some of the ways in which the wheels came off and what he’s been doing to tighten the lug nuts.
He began with an assessment of the state of his game and why it hasn’t been working. And he astutely attributes it to playing “golf swing” instead of playing “golf:”
Yeah, I mean, first and foremost, I just haven’t been swinging it the best this year. I got into a couple bad habits with my golf swing, and it’s just taken my a little bit longer to get out of them. Obviously when you’re fighting that so much, it’s hard to play the golf that I want to play, which is fluid, which is free‑flowing, I guess. That’s the way I play my best.
Trying to work on my swing so much this year has not allowed me to do that, just because I’ve been trying to get the club in the right position to enable me — to get the club in the right positions that I know I can play.
There’s been that, and I guess just every time you play and you don’t play well, it sort of chips away at your confidence a little bit, and it’s just about building that back up. But I’m sitting here as confident as I have been all year, so I’m looking forward to getting going this week
In the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he had been studying old videos of when he was playing in top form. He was asked what he was looking for? The interesting thing here is that he wasn’t looking so much for technical things in the swing as he was looking to see his way of being. Where had the cocky young man with the gorgeous swing and bushy hair disappeared to? Fortunately, he left some traces:
I think technical things, for sure; you look at the way you’re swinging the club.
But also, it’s more than that; it’s body language, it’s how you carry yourself, it’s all that sort of stuff, your little mannerisms. I guess it’s just trying to just remember those feelings and remember how I felt that week and trying to carry some of that into this week and just get those good, positive thoughts going.
And so what exactly did he see? What he described were the quintessential attributes of the best players. It’s not an arcane devotion to swing thoughts and positions, it is a free-flowing athletic movement in response to a target. And that consciousness even expands to the way he walks between shots. It all matters:
As I said just previously, more free‑flowing, more I guess swinging without care in a way. Obviously you have to care about where the ball is going, but swinging it like you’re giving it your all and ripping through the ball.
Even walking between shots, and that’s something I started to do last week again, which is really — I think everyone sees when I walk and I’m playing well, I have that little bounce in my step, so just trying to get that going again and trying to get that positive energy back.
The media wanted to know how he could walk with a bounce in his step when he wasn’t playing well and his confidence was on the wane? He addressed that and then offered a concept that was truly transformational. It’s this whole idea of stepping into the role you want for yourself first, knowing that the results will follow. It is a powerful idea:
Yeah, for sure, I think the two go hand in hand. It’s much easier to have that positive attitude and that bounce in your step when you’re playing well and making birdies and the game comes a little easier to you.
But whenever you’re struggling, of course it’s going to be more difficult. That’s what you need to do; you just need to keep those positive thoughts. You need to have that right attitude to get your way through it. There’s no point in slumping your shoulders and getting down on yourself. Just try to be really resilient and carry yourself as if you were playing well, I guess.
Given that his PGA victory last year was such a soaring accomplishment, could he ever have imagined turning into Icarus in such short order? How did that happen and what has he learned from the experience? And once again he mentioned becoming too swing bound and too critical of himself:
Yeah, I was sort of in this position coming into this tournament last year in a way. I was coming off a fifth place in Akron, but the run of events before that wasn’t so good. So obviously, yeah, you never hope to struggle or not to play well, but it’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.
I’ve taken a few things away from this year, and you know, there’s been — I think there’s been times where I’ve thought about my swing a little bit too much, and that’s prevented me from playing the way I want to play, which is that care‑free, free‑flowing game that I usually have, and just not get too down on myself. That’s the thing, there’s been times this year where I’ve really gotten down on myself and that’s something that hasn’t helped at all, and something that I’m trying to get better at.
But the media wanted to talk about his swing faults anyway. It’s the safe haven of most golfers; we think we should focus on our swing because it seems so logical, that it’s something we can control. The problem is that the more focus on the swing, the less focus on the target:
Yeah, I mean, I think my speed, the speed of my body through the ball, has always been — it’s been one of my biggest advantages, and maybe one of my disadvantages, as well. Because obviously when you have so much speed through the ball, you need to time it perfectly for it to work well all the time.
But, yeah, I mean, this year has just been a case of trying to get out of a bad habit and working it too much and getting into the opposite habit. So now it’s trying to sort of tease it back into where it should be.
Yeah, I think that’s the thing that when I’m on and I can sync my upper body and lower body, everything’s great. When those two just get a little bit out of sync is when I start to struggle.
And so the primary purpose of the warmup on the range is to get loose. The secondary purpose is to deal with swing issues like synching up the upper and lower body, or whatever it is.
Mine right now, as I mentioned in my recent post on Hunter Mahan’s swing tips, is to start my downswing with my right shoulder going down and not out and over the plane. So my attention is there as I work my way up through the bag. By the time I get to the last of my mid-iron shots, my swing is at full range of motion and full speed.
And by the time I’ve gotten to the fairway-wood proxy (the 5-wood or the 3-wood) and the driver, my attention has moved almost completely off the downward-moving shoulder — it’s there by then — and onto the targets and swinging with unfettered freedom.
On the first tee it’s the half-speed reinforcement of the shoulder move in the practice swing, and then the freedom in the actual swing.
If you can walk off that 1st tee swinging freely, your day will be set up for great things to happen. Because when you can play in freedom, you capture the natural, innate magic of the human body, the genius of the human body and the certain knowledge that it can be trusted.