Rory McIlroy: Still deep into his understanding of how to play the game

Rory McIlroy is playing in his sixth PGA Championship, this year at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. He won it at Kiawah Island in 2012 and he’s had four top‑10 finishes.

He’s had a great run-up to this last major of the year and is coming in pretty confident. With good reason:

“Yeah, game feels in really good shape obviously and coming in here with a lot of confidence, and historically, the PGA Championship has probably been my best major, the win at Kiawah in 2012, but then a couple of third‑place finishes and a couple other top‑10s.  It’s been a tournament that I’ve really enjoyed and a tournament that I’ve had some success at, so hopefully I can continue that trend this week.”

Having that successful experience and in the British Open and U.S. Open is a real edge. And that also applies to Bubba Watson’s Masters and Martin Kaymer’s U.S. Open wins this year: 

“I think experience and knowing what it feels like to be in that position is a huge thing.  It’s a great thing to be able to fall back on, and that’s what you’re seeing with some of the guys coming through now.  They have gotten that experience and they have got a little bit more know‑how into how to handle that situation better.”

“And it took me a couple of goes, it really did.  It took me a couple of goes to get comfortable with the position of being in the mix in a major in the back nine on Sunday [most notably from the middle of the cabins on the 10th hole at Augusta].  You need those experiences to try and help you, and I think it’s a very important part of trying to close out tournaments is having the experience to fall back on [failure is a great teacher].”

This time of year is a pretty solid stretch of really big tournaments. On the one hand, they can wear you out mentally, but on the other, they get you in a groove and you don’t have so much fantastical thinking as say, coming into the Masters:

“Yeah, I mean, I think everyone knows how busy the golf season gets in these months.  You know, starting off with, say, The Open Championship or even the week before that, a lot of guys play the Scottish Open, and going straight into a World Golf Championships at Firestone into the PGA. And then you have all the FedEx Playoffs coming up and The Ryder Cup.  It’s a big stretch of golf.”

Pacing yourself can come down to the simplest of things:

“I gave myself yesterday off.  I was planning to come and play nine holes.  I came up here and just registered and got myself organized, but I didn’t go out on the golf course.  So gave myself the day off yesterday, which I felt like I needed, just to recharge a little bit.  I think, as you said, emotionally and mentally, it’s more fatiguing after you win tournaments than it is physically.  So just to give your brain and give your head a day just to sort of rest is a good thing and get back into it.”

And the pace of it all keeps you deep into the process of playing the game and not so much the pageantry of the events. It is a show, after all:

“But you know, having all these tournaments sort of go back‑to‑back, it does, it gives you less time to think about it.  You just get straight back into it and you try to prepare the best you can and go out — I’ll just try and play golf similar to what I’ve played the last few weeks.”

One of the other advantages playing in a stretch like this, particularly successfully, is that you are able to sample all of the various things that happen to you and make some judgments about why you were successful. McIlroy has decided that, for him, it’s all about being completely present to each shot:

“I think what’s going through my head when I approach each shot is just that shot.  That’s what I feel — when I’m mentally at my best on the golf course, that’s what it is.  It’s approaching every shot as if that’s the only shot you’re going to play that day, you know?”

“And then putting everything into that and not getting ahead of yourself, thinking about your score or thinking about where you are in the tournament or on the leaderboard.”

“When you talk about my game being in a certain zone, mentally it’s just I’m in a good place on the course and I’m staying in the present, and that’s really why you’re seeing the sort of golf that I’m playing over the past few weeks.”

This success, particularly three different majors by the age of 25 and his first World Golf Championship at Firestone, have gotten the kettle to boil with conversations that golf has perhaps moved into a new era, the Rory era. Does he buy into that? Take note of the modesty in his answer:

“I don’t really know how to answer that.  Yeah, of course, I’ve heard it and I’ve read it.  Sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon and jump on certain things.”

“I’ve had a great run of golf and I’ve played well over the past few months.  Look, I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game.  I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the World Rankings and competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.”

“So I’m not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I’m just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible.  And people can say what they want to say, that’s fine.  But I can’t read too much into it.”

And then there’s the charm of his sense of humor on this issue, another marker of a quiet mind capable of dealing with pressure-packed moments:

“I just need to continue to practice hard and play well, and if I do that, then you know, that’s all I can do and try not to read too much of the stuff that’s being written, because if you read everything that was being written, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament (laughter).”

One of the things that made his win at Firestone so impressive was his prodigious drives. Not only were they long, they were in the fairway and mostly in the middle. What has led to this obvious consistency?

“I’m definitely hitting it longer over the past couple years.  I’ve started to work harder in the gym and I’ve got stronger in certain areas of my body which I needed to.”

“I’ve always had the speed and I’ve always had the power, but I haven’t really had maybe the strength or the stability to hold on to it my whole way through the swing.  So working on a couple of different things in the gym has definitely helped.”

“And is there more to come?  I mean, maybe, depending on what — it’s not like I’m going to get much bigger.  I’ve put on three kilograms of muscle [6.6 pounds] in the last eight weeks [geez], so that definitely helps.  I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been.  But does that mean I want to get heavier and try to put on more distance?”

“I mean, I don’t feel like I need to put on any more distance.  If I can hit it over 300 yards and in the fairway most of the time, I’m happy enough with that.  That gives me plenty of opportunities to hit it close to flags and try and make birdies.”

“But definitely over the past couple of weeks, it’s the best I’ve driven the ball, and you know, hopefully I can continue to do that”

So if you asked him what part of his game that he was most confident in, you’d guess that he would say driving, right? His answer gives us laymen a sense of just where he is in the mastery process; that this is a guy who is really deep into all the levers and pulleys that make a player great:

“I think more just my approach to the game, my mental state.  I think that’s really what I’m happy about is, you know, I kept saying it last week, but not dwelling on the results that I’ve had and just trying to keep moving forward, and focus on the next week and focus on — that’s really what I’m happy about.”

“I mean, people can talk about my driving or how I’m swinging the club, but mentally, I just feel like I’m in a really good place, and I think that’s what I’m really happy about.”

So does he have a sense of how this all finally congealed? He does and pay particular attention to the fine distinction he makes about between eliminating mistakes and not hitting great shots:

“I don’t know if it’s just — I don’t know if I can pinpoint it to one particular thing that clicked in my game.  I just feel like everything came together at the right time.”

“Even during the first part of the year, the sort of first half of the year, I felt like there was a lot of good golf in there, but I was just making too many mistakes.  But I always felt that the mistakes are much easier to eradicate than if you’re not hitting the great shots or you’re not making the birdies; I think they are harder to find, rather than to eradicate some of the bad shots.”

“So becoming a little better at maybe just getting rid of a few of those bad shots, not getting on some of these bogey runs that I was getting on at the start of the year.  That definitely helped.”

“And then your confidence grows.  Your confidence grows and you start to hit more and more good shots.  You start to shoot better scores and then from there, it’s a matter of confidence.”

“I mean, I’m not sure if I — when I say I’m on my A-Game, I think it’s just everything, it just sort of feels comfortable.  I feel like I drive the ball well.  I hit fairways, I hit greens.  I give myself plenty of chances for birdies.  It’s just I play the right way.  I play it on the fairway.  I play it on the green.  I give myself a lot of chances for birdies.”

And that leads to the display we were all treated to in his final round at Firestone:

“I guess even going into like a final round, like last week, I hit 16 greens on Sunday.  So to hit 16 greens in regulation on a Sunday when you need to give yourself chances for birdies to come from behind, trying to win, that gives me confidence knowing that my ball‑striking is in a place like that where I can go and give myself basically a birdie opportunity on every hole.”

I don’t think there’s any knowledgeable patron of the game who won’t be watching to see if Rory can keep it going. When you see all that he’s put into it and how deeply he understands himself and his game, it’s one of the best stories in golf right now.

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