Rory McIlroy: Still more, deep inside a great player’s head

Playing in early day rains, Rory McIlroy shot 4-under, 67 to get to 9-under and maintain a one-stroke lead in the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. This time his closest pursuers were Jason Day, who shot 6-under, and Jim Furyk, who shot 3-under, both to get to 8-under. Day has become known for being “there or thereabouts” in majors, so it’s no surprise that he is again. And Jim Furyk, well, he’s Jim Furyk. He finished 2nd in the PGA last year and won the U.S. Open in 2003.

But for now, Rory McIlroy is the man and once again he had some mastery pearls to share with us in his two post-round interviews.

This stretch he’s been on since winning the British Open has been absolutely captivating and all the world wants to know how he’s gotten to this state?

“Mentally I’m in a really solid place in terms of not getting ahead of myself on the golf course.  Staying in the present.  I’ve got little trigger words that I’m still using, and that seems to be getting me through.  I can’t really explain it anymore, any better than that.”

For the British Open, the two words were, “process” and “spot.” Process to remind him to just stay in the process of what it takes to hit each shot as good as he can without regard to results or any extraneous thoughts. And spot to remind him to just pick a spot on the green to roll his putts over, again with no extraneous thoughts.

He continued:

“Obviously my swing is technically in a good place at the minute.  I’m able to shape the ball in both ways.  I’m confident, and I’m just on a good run.  You’ve seen before when I got on good runs like this, I can sort of keep it going for a little while.  Hopefully, I can keep it longer than I have done in the past.”

But Friday was no cakewalk in the rain:

“Conditions were obviously a little tougher than they were yesterday and especially on our front nine which is the back nine, you needed to stay really patient, because the rain was coming down pretty heavily at times.”

“It was just about managing your game and putting the ball in the fairway and trying to put it somewhere on the green and I was able to make a few birdies on the back nine and to finish off with that eagle on the last was nice.”

And since he lost his 4-shot lead in the 2011 Masters, he’s decided to exploit the confidence he has in his game rather than shrinking from cautious or negative thoughts:

It’s taken me a couple of years to grow into that where I am comfortable, and, you know, my mind‑set has stayed the same since that day at Augusta.  If I’m two ahead going into the weekend here, I’m going to try to get three ahead; and if I’m three ahead, I’m going to try to get four ahead; and if I’m four ahead, I’m going to try to get five ahead.  I’m just going to try to keep the pedal down and get as many ahead as possible.  That is my mind‑set whenever I’m leading the golf tournament.

There is a high level of interest in checking for a correlation between the end of Rory’s engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki in May and his current high level of play.

It is all couched in terms of “life changes” without mention of what that life change actually was. “We all know what those life changes were, so we will politely not mention them out loud. We are merely masking our purient interests about this matter in civility towards you.”

But true to his word, McIlroy does his best to give an honest answer to these inquiries and there were more than just one:

“Well, I think it has happened to me for the better.  I’ve put a little bit more time into my golf and it’s refocused me in a way.  It’s the only thing — not the only thing I have; I’ve got my family and my friends, but I just immersed myself in my game.  I’ve practiced hard and I’ve done all the right things, and I’m reaping the rewards.”

“Obviously there’s a lot of people around me who keep me on an even keel.  My mum and dad are obviously the two biggest influences on my life and I’ve got a great bunch of friends from home and I’ve got a great team around me.  You know, they are the people that I confide in and the people that I can tell everything to, and it’s great to have a solid bunch of people like that around you that you can rely on.”

And there was an oblique question on this same issue wondering if Tiger’s singular focus on his golf as a divorced man had any congruency with Rory’s single-status focus. Was he modeling himself after his boyhood idol?

“No, nothing.  It’s not like I’ve tried to take his approach in any way.  I’m just in a stage of my life that, you know, it’s just where I’m at.  Golf is the No. 1 priority to me and while I’m on this run of form, I want to try and keep it going as long as possible, and I’m going to keep working hard and keep practicing and try and get even better.”

“Hopefully I can do that over the next few years, and hopefully you’ll see golf like this more often from me.”

Back to golf, McIlroy talks about how good golf begets good golf. For him, playing a tidy round of fairways and greens and looks at 18 birdie putts is inspirational and builds his confidence:

“Yeah, I still like bombing drives 350 down the middle (smiling).  Yeah, I think that’s when my confidence grows.  When I see good shots like that and when I see drives down the middle and tarring iron shots into the greens; that’s the way I like to play golf.  That’s the way I see myself as a player, and that’s the sort of golf that I play when I win.”

“But obviously there were times out there [today] where it was pretty scrappy, and those are the times when you have to just get it up‑and‑down and keep the momentum going in a round.  I feel like I’m getting better at that.  But of course, I still want to play the golf that I like, which is down the middle, on the green and give myself as many chances as possible.”

So given all that, is there no longer any inclination to go into protective mode when necessary? Wouldn’t that go against his evolved, barrel-chested playing nature?

“Yeah, I mean, look, I’ve went protection mode once in my career, and it was the 2011 Masters.  That didn’t work out very well.  So I said to myself, I’ll never do that again.”

“So I don’t think you can protect a lead.  You just have to go out and play, play your game, and not — again, not think about the score, not think about where you are in the tournament.  Just play a solid round of golf.”

And so when he show up for a tournament now, he expects to win it, right?

No, I expect to stick to my game plan.  I expect to execute my shots.  I expect to do the things I can control.”

“I can’t control the outcome.  I can’t control what other people do.  So do I expect to win?  No.  But do I expect to do the things that I know I can do and control?  Yes.  And I know that if I do those well, there’s a good chance that I’ll win.”

So now that he has totally immersed himself in his golf game, just how much more time does that work out to be?

It’s hard to really say how much more time.  I guess, what else do I have to do?  I get up in the morning, I go to the golf course, I go to the gym.  It’s just my life at the minute, you know.  It obviously works pretty well, so I’m going to keep doing it.”

“But I couldn’t say how much more time that I’ve spent.  I always feel like I’ve practiced pretty hard and done the things that I’ve needed to do.  Just seems like over the past couple of months, I’ve really just buried myself in my golf game and it seems to be working.”

And then there was this very nice exposition on the optimum playing attitude where, no matter what happens, there are more birdies, more chances, ahead. He seems to have a knack for bounce back birdies; is that a coincidence?

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence.  I think when you do have setbacks, you know there’s going to be chances coming up for birdies.  I think when you’re struggling on form or searching for things, if you have some sort of setback on the course, it just makes it very hard to get some momentum again.”

“I’ve found that even in the middle of this year, where I would play some really good golf but I would make a couple of bogeys and I would get on a run where all of a sudden I’ll shoot a 42 on a nine and take myself out of the tournament.”

“But I think when you’re 100 percent confident in your game, that just doesn’t happen because you know there’s chances out there, and you know you’re going to hit good shots and mentally you’re just in a better place.”

So far, he seems to be in a pretty good better place. With a forecast for a 50% chance of rain including thunderstorms, it’ll be interesting to see if he can stay there.

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