Rory McIlroy’s disposition in the early going of this week’s major could foretell how the defending PGA champion will fare at Oak Hill.
The 2012 Player of the Year, whose tough season has been well-documented, enters the final grand slam event on the men’s 2013 calendar still struggling to regain the form and swagger that last year helped him to win his second career major and two money titles. While McIlroy told reporters on Wednesday that he was as confident as he has been all season with his swing and equipment on the eve of Thursday’s first round, he allowed that he would make a concerted effort to remain positive inside the ropes -- and show it -- no matter how he performed.
"Every time you play and you don’t play well, it sort of chips away at your confidence a little bit and it’s just about building that back up," said McIlroy, who noted he has reviewed video of his record-breaking route of the field in last year’s PGA Championship at Kiawah.
Going to the tape helped him remember the free-wheeling game he played before he got into some "bad habits" with his swing. Mostly, though, he hoped to recapture the way he felt on his way to an eight-stroke victory a year ago.
"It's body language, it's how you carry yourself, it's all that sort of stuff, your little mannerisms," said McIlroy. "I guess it's just trying to just remember those feelings and remember how I felt that week and trying to carry some of that into this week and just get those good, positive thoughts going....Everyone sees when I walk and I'm playing well, I have that little bounce in my step, so just trying to get that going again and trying to get that positive energy back."
After contorting a couple of his Nike clubs in frustration at the U.S. and Irish Opens, and then claiming to be "brain dead" at Muirfield two weeks ago, McIlroy mentioned he may seek a tuneup with his former mental coach, Bob Rotella. While he said Wednesday he had eschewed that approach and would work things out on his own, McIlroy’s words had a familiar ring to them.
Following a start to his 2012 season with a win in his second tour event and three additional top-3 finishes in his first five, McIlroy fell into a slump that included three missed cuts and a tie for 60th at last year’s U.S. Open. At the time, the young golfer’s putting instructor Dave Stockton told SBNation that he was more concerned with the way McIlroy comported himself than with his shots or even tournament results.
"I told him, ‘I am tired of turning on the TV and seeing...by your demeanor and how you walk...exactly whether you’ve just made a birdie or a bogey....You sag your shoulders, you do all this stuff,’" Stockton said a year ago. "‘If you get mad at something, fine, but just don’t get down.’"
McIlroy rode Stockton’s pep talk into a tie for fifth at the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and went on to torch the field at Kiawah, win two consecutive FedEx Cup events, and take down a red-hot Keegan Bradley in singles play at the Ryder Cup.
Fast forward a year, and McIlroy has time to snap out of his year-long funk and go on a tear similar to last year’s. It’s all a matter of positive thinking, he said.
"It's much easier to have that positive attitude and that bounce in your step when you're playing well and making birdies and the game comes a little easier to you," he acknowledged. "But whenever you're struggling, of course it's going to be more difficult. That's what you need to do; you just need to keep those positive thoughts. You need to have that right attitude to get your way through it.
"There's no point in slumping your shoulders and getting down on yourself," McIlroy intoned, as if trying to convince himself. "Just try to be really resilient and carry yourself as if you were playing well, I guess."
No matter what happens this week -- or through the FedEx Cup series that begin later this month -- McIlroy said he would add more competitive events to his schedule in 2014.
"I would have definitely played more at the start of this year," said McIlroy, who has repeated the sentiment a few times this season. "That's one thing I regret -- I didn't play enough at the start of the year. I played Abu Dhabi [where he missed his first worldwide cut of the season] and took like four weeks off. I didn't play and I needed to get into a run of events, and that's something I should have done differently."
As for the tourney at hand, McIlroy sounded like a man trying to make himself believe his own words.
"For me this week, I'm feeling good. I had a really good nine holes of golf this morning. Played really, really well. Played the back nine. I'm feeling good," McIlroy said. "Feeling good."