Rory McIlroy: World No. 1 tells us how he did it

The machine is on cruise control. All of the torturous lessons in losing, the vacuous rounds without a clue have finally paid off. Rory McIlroy won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational Sunday demonstrating that he is a free-flowing master of the game of golf. He thinks he’s the best he’s ever been:

“It’s the most comfortable I’ve ever felt trying to close out a golf tournament out there today.  I felt normal.  I felt like it was the first round or the second round.  It didn’t feel like a fourth round.”

“It just felt mentally it’s the best I’ve ever been, I didn’t get ahead of myself.  I didn’t start to think about score.  I didn’t think about where I was in the tournament.  I just kept playing my shot after shot after shot. Yeah, so it’s good.”

Tee ball after tee ball effortlessly smashed into orbit. A few drifted harmlessly into the right rough, but most of them were in the dead-center of the fairway…except for the one on 18 that he intentionally hit to the right edge of the fairway because it was the beginning of the only corridor to the green through the overhanging trees. After one of the more stunning drives, on course commentator, David Feherty, tried to convey its magnificence. “I played this game for twenty years and I never hit anything that looked remotely like that.”

But was it effortless? 

“No, it’s not effortless, but it’s — you know when I talked about earlier, just it felt normal.  It felt — yeah, and, again, I think it’s all to do with how I am mentally on the golf course.  I’m just sticking to whatever I’m doing right.  I’m not really focusing on anything else but that particular shot that I have, and I keep doing that shot after shot.”

“That’s sort of what’s going on at the minute, and I’m going to try to keep doing it for as long as possible because it’s working pretty well.”

“It’s never effortless.  There’s a lot of — you’re trying hard out there.  You’re trying not to make it look like you’re trying hard.  But there’s a few putts I needed to grind over on the back nine and a few tee shots I had to tell myself just make a pretty good swing on this and process and whatever else and keep going with that.”

“Yeah, if I can keep making it look effortless, then that’s a good thing.”

So when he’s hitting his driver like that, how much of that success percolates into the rest of his clubs? A lot he says and because of the way he thinks about his driver, it actually makes the others easier to hit.

“Well, the way I approach it is the longer the club, the harder it is to hit.  So if you’re hitting arguably the hardest club in your bag to hit that well, then the other stuff should sort of fall in line or fall into place.  I feel like that’s what’s sort of happened.”

“Whenever I drive the ball well, I always put myself in positions where I can attack flags and try and make birdies, but when I’m swinging it well with a driver, that sort of funnels through the rest of my game.  If I’m swinging well with a driver, more than likely, I’m swinging well with everything else.  Obviously, I get a lot of confidence with that.”

Interestingly, his new-found competence was an iterative process. He found himself in circumstances at both the Scottish Open and the British Open where he had to hit more drivers on holes than he had originally planned. And the success that he experienced caused him to hit even more and to become much more confident:

“I’ve been driving the ball great all year.  I really have.  But I hit a few drivers that I wasn’t planning to the Sunday of the Scottish Open at Aberdeen.  I hit some drivers off tees that I didn’t plan to and hit them really well.  I took a lot of confidence from that going into Hoylake.  And the way I drove the ball at Hoylake, again, gives me a lot of confidence.”

“And then here this week.  But it sets up well for me.  It’s soft conditions, and I can just go after it.  It’s not like balls are going to bounce on the fairway and go off.  If it lands on the fairway, more than likely it’s going to stay there.”

“That Sunday at the Scottish Open sort of, it gave me confidence, but I’d been driving the ball well leading up to that.  But it put it in my mind that maybe I can go to Hoylake and hit a couple more drivers than I thought I was going to.”

Notwithstanding Rory’s sort of laid back persona, there is now an obvious intensity that allows him to play at a very high level while firmly planted in the present. That didn’t just happen by accident, it happened because of a new focus:

“Just putting golf first, I guess, and really dedicating my whole time and everything I have into my career.  I’ve worked — I have worked extremely hard, and I’m reaping the rewards of it now.”

“I worked hard‑‑ I’ve worked hard all year, but I just feel like I’ve just had this renewed focus and dedication, and it seems just to be paying off.”

It’s the kind of focus that doesn’t overlook anything, even down to planning how he was going to begin Sunday’s breathtaking opening stretch of three birdies in a row:

“That’s what I wanted to do.  I played the first few holes really well this week anyway.”

“It really started last night, birdieing those final two holes after the rain delay and then coming out today and birdieing the first three.  So playing that five‑hole stretch at 5 under par really set me up to have a great chance to win this golf tournament.”

“I played really well from there.  I birdied 5 to get to 4 under for the day.  After that, I had a couple of little wobbles, a couple of loose drives, but for the most part played really solid golf and did what I needed to do.”

“I rode my luck a little bit on the back nine, hit a couple of tree limbs that the ball came back into the fairway.  So got lucky a couple of times.  And Sergio had a couple of putts to try and get close to me.”

“But I did enough in the end and hung on.  Obviously, very happy to be sitting here as the champion and No.1 player in the world, and going into Valhalla [next week for the PGA Championship] with obviously a lot of confidence.”

As successful as he has been in really big tournaments, not the least of which his three different flavored majors, it was a mild surprise to be reminded that he had yet to win a World Golf Championship until this one. His success just seemed so prolific:

“It was sort of the only thing missing.  Three majors and PGA Tour wins, European Tour wins, Ryder Cups, World No.1 — it was just sort of — it was just the thing that was sort of missing on the CV was a World Golf Championship.  It’s great to finally get one here, one of my favorite venues of the year.”

“There’s still one more WGC to come up this year [the HSBC Champions in Shanghai].  Hopefully, I can add to the list later on in the season [Technically, it now occurs at the beginning of next season, 2014 – 2015.]”

One of the other critical elements of the construction of his new mindset is the notion of always moving forward. It gets animated by forgetting about previous tournaments in favor of overcoming any inertia in the present. And it extends sequentially down to the previous day, the previous hole and the previous shot.

“That’s the most pleasing thing about this week is not dwelling on what happened at Hoylake [his victory in the British Open] and just keep — I kept saying it the whole time, ‘Keep moving forward.'”

“That’s what I’ll have to do after this as well.  I’ve just got to keep moving forward.  I’ve got plenty of time at the end of the year to celebrate all these successes.”

“I’ll have a good time tonight.  I’ll celebrate with my dad and Sean and J.P. and stuff, but I’ve got a big tournament next week and one that I desperately want to win.”

“It’s great to have a chance to try to go there to try to win three in a row, but if you’d have asked me what I’m proudest of this week, it’s the mindset that I took into here of not being complacent and not just sort of coming here and enjoying myself.  I wanted to come here and really contend.  It’s great that I was able to do that.”

McIlroy talked about the psychology of being the chaser and being the chased. There are these defining moments in that situation. Fortunately for him, they unfolded early in those first three holes.

“I think when you’re going out and you’re trailing by a few — I was trailing by three — you want to tie them as quickly as possible.  So try to get next to them as soon as you can.”

“Yeah, I mean, 2 and 3 were big.  Sergio didn’t make birdie on 3, and then I birdied 3 and he bogeyed, and all of a sudden, from being three back, I’m one ahead.”

“So it’s a big moment in the round.  I wanted to just sort of keep my foot on the pedal a little bit and try and keep going.  Had a good chance on 4 for birdie, didn’t quite make it, but then made a good one on 5.  The start was obviously very important.”

“Yeah, I think the mindset going out is just try to catch them as quickly as possible and then go from there.”

There were two traits he aspired to after the Ryder Cup matches in Kiawah Island a couple of years ago, to remain humble and to be honest. In the world of big-time professional golf, was he finding that harder to do as his success grew?

I loved his answer to this, because in my experience of asking him questions in the media center, he is exactly as he aspires to be in his answer:

“I think you’ve always got to keep your humbleness, and of course, honesty as well.”

“No, it shouldn’t be a problem to try and keep those two things.  I’m lucky to be able to play this game, and it’s been great to me.  I want to make the most of it, of course.  I practice very hard to get to where I’m at.”

“But, yeah, whenever I’m talking to you guys, I want to try to be as open and as honest as possible and try and answer questions thoughtfully and articulately and just try and give you guys some good material as well.”

“Yeah, I feel like I’m the same person as I was at Kiawah a couple of years ago.”

And finally, this sort of global view he has of all elements of his game right now extends even to thinking about what he learned in his previous stint as World No. 1 that would be helpful in remaining there longer this time around:

“Not to think about it too much.  Not to feel like you’re going defending every week or defending it all the time, just to go out and play.  It’s a nice honor, and it’s a nice title to have, but I don’t think you should go into tournaments thinking about it or thinking about, oh, this guy could pass me if I don’t finish in this position, or this guy could do this.”

“I think you just go and you play and you try to win golf tournaments, and if you win golf tournaments, the ranking takes care of itself.”

“My goal now until the end of the year is just to try to win as many golf tournaments as I can.  It’s not to try to finish No.1 in the world.  It’s just to get as many titles as possible.”

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