Confident Rory McIlroy has nothing but respect for Gary Player

Sam Greenwood

After missing the cut at the British Open, Rory McIlroy returns to competitive action at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational refreshed and with new-found confidence in his game.

Rory McIlroy may be the only member of the golfing fraternity unaware of Gary Player’s relationship advice for the world’s third-ranked golfer who’s been going through something of a dry spell on the course.

McIlroy, who believes he can turn around his disappointing year in this week’s no-cut WGC-Bridgestone Invitational -- as he did last year at Firestone after weathering a mid-season slump -- spent the weekend playing golf with boyhood chums in Northern Ireland. On vacation as he was, McIlroy apparently missed the Black Knight’s suggestion that he find the "right wife" to support his game.

"I haven't heard. I don't know what you're talking about," McIlroy said during a press conference Wednesday at Firestone Country Club before next week's PGA Championship. "What did he say?"

McIlroy professed later during a teleconference promoting the Deutsche Bank Championship still to have no knowledge about Player’s comments, but had nothing but kind words for the orator of the latest in a line of golf’s elders to take a swing at the two-time major champ’s season-long struggles.

"I have the utmost respect for Gary. He's obviously one of the greatest champions that I've ever seen, and I think that as a man, he's an incredible human being," McIlroy said. "To be his age and to keep himself as physically fit as he has and to lead the life that he has, I have nothing but respect for Gary."

Player, by the way, took to Twitter after his My Sporting Life comments went viral, to explain his remarks.

On Wednesday, McIlroy, whose despondency over his game hit a new low when he scored an 8-over 79 in the first round of the British Open two weeks ago, sounded nothing like the player who called himself "brain dead" and "lost" before he missed the cut at Muirfield. Instead, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland, who lost the top ranking to Tiger Woods earlier this year and slipped to No. 3 after Phil Mickelson won the Open Championship, professed to be full of confidence at the start of a long stretch of golf that will culminate with the Tour Championship in September.

"When you play some tournaments and they don't go your way, of course your confidence is going to get knocked a little bit," admitted McIlroy, who contended he needed just "one good round or one good week" to regain his swagger.

"I don't think it's something that you really need to build up over a period of time," he said. "I was in a very similar position with my golf game this time last year, and you know, I played a really good tournament at Akron, got a lot of confidence from that. Brought it into the PGA [Championship], won there, and then obviously went and won another few times around the world."

McIlroy did indeed find himself in a similar situation last year at this time, though he had one win, at the Honda Classic, prior to the 2012 Firestone tilt. After a fifth-place Bridgestone finish, he went on a tear, immediately winning the PGA Championship, two FedEx Cup playoff tourneys, dual money titles, and player of the year honors.

The primary difference between then and now, McIlroy contended, was his belief in what he could accomplish.

"I actually feel I'm in better spirits about my golf game this year than I was this time last year, honestly, because I think coming into Akron last year, I was searching and I was really trying to figure out what I needed to do with my golf game to get it back where I wanted it to be," he said. "This year, I definitely don't feel like I'm searching for as many answers, I don't feel like I'm looking for at many things and it's just a matter of letting it all happen on the golf course.

"It's definitely close," added McIlroy. "It's just a matter of it all clicking into place and whether that's over one round or one week or whatever it is, I definitely don't feel like it's too far away."

McIlroy’s attitude adjustment occurred after a few days in Monaco and a return home for some sessions with long-time coach Michael Bannon and fun golf with his pals.

"Because you play so much golf on tour, and you sort of, I guess you forget why you play the game; you play the game because you love it," he mused. "I don't get the opportunity to go and play golf with my buddies much anymore, so to be able to go and do that for the weekend was something that I really enjoyed."

McIlroy, who mangled a club in frustration during the U.S. Open in June, slumped his shoulders dejectedly during the Open Championship a month later, and was fodder for the British tabloids, also conceded that he had to keep his temper in check.

"I've become a little bit too emotionally involved with my golf over the past few months, I guess," McIlroy said. "And I've let it either get me excited or get me down, where I should really just not get too high or too low about it at all."

''The last 51 weeks [since recording his second major win, at Kiawah Island] it's been up and down,'' McIlroy said. ''My highs have been incredibly high and my lows have been pretty low. It's just about trying to stabilize everything out and try to make it a little more on an even keel.''

More golf from SB Nation:

Leaderboard updates and coverage from the week at Firestone

Tiger Woods critiques PGA Championship greens at Oak Hill

Gary Player advises Rory McIlroy on love, finding the 'right wife' to get golf game back | Rory responds

Tiger, Phil descend on Oak Hill for final major prep

Inbee Park goes for historic grand slam

Paula Creamer is doing handstands in the fairway at St. Andrews

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