Rory McIlroy: Working His Way Back to the Very Top

The European tour championship has finally arrived this week in the form of the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. The name is a little confusing because it reads like it’s a world tour championship, but it’s not. It’s sponsored by its namesake, DP World, which is the third largest seaport operator in the world with 65 marine terminals across six continents. It’s core business is container handling.

So all of the stars are here, but one of them, Rory McIlroy, is out of contention for the Chase to Dubai, and is only looking to win the tournament itself.

A little bit different coming in this week and not having much to play for in terms of Race to Dubai, but still want to try and finish the season off really strongly.  I feel like this course really suits my game.  I know it would be a great way to obviously cap off the European season with a win. 

He feels like he’s playing well and has done some good prep work coming in:

Yeah, I feel like I’m playing well.  I feel like I’m playing much better.  Obviously a lot of improvement in my game, and a lot of positive signs, which is a great thing.

So, yeah, I feel good.  I put in some good work; that little stretch that we had off after the FedExCup stuff in America, felt like my game has been steadily progressing ever since.

I’ve still got a couple more tournaments left this year, and obviously it’s nice to come back to a place like Dubai where I had success last year [he won], and some good memories.  So I’m in a good place to sort of try and defend my title this week.

Coming in he had a good three weeks in Asia to build on and got a nice couple of days off before he began trying to put the sheen back on his game again:

Took a few days off.  Took a bit of time off, and then started to practice again on Sunday. It was nice just to take a few days off, because I had worked hard leading up to the three events in Asia, obviously three weeks in a row there, so it takes a bit out of you.

So it was nice to get back into a couple of really good days practice Sunday and Monday.  It was great to see the course today again, and it was actually good to see it in the morning time, because I’m going to be playing pretty early on Thursday.  So it’s a good indication of what sort of clubs you’ll be hitting off tees and what to expect.

So it’s been good.  It’s been a nice few days, and I’m looking forward to getting back into some competitive play on Thursday.

McIlroy’s “malaise” still has him as No. 6 in the world, but he remembers when he was No. 1 and the world was at his feet. Could any more superlatives have been written? In the meantime, his performance has flattened and he’s taken in some good lessons as he works to turn things around:

Yeah, I learned — it’s funny, it’s like polar opposites.  I guess I learned last year how to deal with the hype and deal with people obviously building you up, and this year I’ve learned to deal with criticism.  So it’s been two opposite ends of the spectrum.

I try to learn from everything that I do, and yeah, I mean, every year is a learning year.  Every year for me is still a new experience.  Last year was getting to world No. 1 and being the dominant player in the world for a while.  This year, it’s been having to handle criticism and scrutiny.

So there’s always something you can learn.  I’ve learned a lot from that this year.

He’s also had to deal with outside distractions: firing and suing his management company, forming his own management company and the continuing rumors of his breakup with his girlfriend, tennis great, Caroline Wozniacki, although there seems to be no truth to the latter.

There’s been — definitely there’s been a few things that have impacted.  Obviously a few different things to think about and different things that occupy your head that really shouldn’t.  But, you know, it’s just the way it is and the position that I’m in.

You know, it’s something that will be sorted out hopefully sooner rather than later, but yeah, that’s the way it is and comes with the territory I guess.

How does it feel to go from the top of the world down to No. 6? Like water off a duck’s back. There is an ebb and flow to professional golf — all golf actually — and you can’t dwell of extraneous things that don’t have anything to do with hitting the ball solidly.

Yeah, dropped to six, I know it’s terrible.  Really bad.  Terrible.  (Laughter).

Yeah, it’s fine.  It’s not the place that I want to be in, but it hasn’t been a disastrous year.  I’ve played well in patches.  I haven’t played consistently well.  I haven’t given myself as many chances to win as I would have liked.  But as I said, my game feels in really good shape and I’ve got a few tournaments left this year to try and put a win on the board.

So that’s the most important thing.  Once you start to win golf tournaments again, you know, everything else takes care of itself, whether it’s rankings or whatever it is.  You try and win golf tournaments and you eventually start to do that again, and everything else just sort of falls into place.

He has developed a sort of pre-season formula that has stood him in good stead. It provides good insights into how one of the greats prepares for the new year and points to the value of creating new beginnings:

I’ve done it every year since I’ve turned pro.  I’ll spend a couple of weeks here [in Dubai] before going to Abu Dhabi.  I’m actually coming out here earlier than I ever have next year.  As you said, the facilities here are second to none.  I know Justin Parsons well from the Butch Harmon school there and we usually go there because, you know, he’s a good friend and we get a bit of peace and quiet there.  Maybe not now that I’m saying all this.  (Laughter).

But it’s great, and you know, they have got a nice little gym there, they have got a great setup if you want to analyze your swing.  Obviously my coach, Michael Bannon, comes out with me and we spend a good two weeks working on my game, a bit of a mini‑boot camp to start the season off.  It’s worked well in the past and I don’t think it’s a formula that I really want to change.

And then he detailed the process he’s going through right now, trying to win tournaments, not being satisfied when he doesn’t and being fired up to work harder for it in the future:

I guess it’s the confidence of getting on a run of events where you’re up there in contention each and every week.  I mean, I think I started Korea in a way — but the likes of a World Golf Championships in Shanghai, you know, being up there, being disappointed with sixth; that’s something that I’m used to feeling.

I walk away in the middle of the season with an eighth place finish at the PGA and think that’s progress, which it is.  It’s a good finish but finishing sixth in a World Golf Championships is disappointing.

That’s the sort of different mind‑set that I have and the different mind‑set that you need to go on and win those big tournaments.  You can’t settle for a sixth place; okay, it’s a good finish and it’s one of the best finishes of the year.  It’s not the level that you want to be at.

So it takes it — there’s a whole process that you have to go through in terms of building your confidence back up and getting that mind‑set where, as I said, you finish a tournament and you’re in contention and you don’t quite pull it off and you’re disappointed and it makes you hungrier to go on and try to win tournaments and win more.

That’s the process that I’m going through and I feel like I’m on that journey, and it might take me three months; it might take me less time, who knows?  But I know that I’m on the right road and that’s what I’m building towards.

Eliminating timelines for this kind of work has a sort of circular reasoning that makes it work: if you don’t adhere to timelines but rather to the unfolding process itself, you can pay more attention to the lessons of the process.

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