News & Opinion

On cusp of 30, McIlroy refines mind game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Can it truly be that Rory McIlroy is about to turn 30? Wasn’t it just yesterday that he burst into our consciousness by winning the Dubai Desert Classic at age 19? And his first PGA Tour victory came here at the Wells Fargo Championship, just two days before turning 21.

He looked like a child then, a mere slip of a lad with cherubic cheeks and a wide, toothy grin. McIlroy’s talent at such a young age created upside that hadn’t come along in professional golf in a good while. The world was laid out in front of him, his for the taking.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy, who has won twice at Quail Hollow Club, seeks to find ‘the right place mentally’ this week in Charlotte, N.C.

And his record bears that out. He has 15 PGA Tour victories, including four major championships and the recent Players Championship, plus eight European Tour titles. He’s ranked No. 4 in the world. McIlroy has been married for two years and by all accounts is happier than he’s ever been.

Yet, there seems as if there’s still work to be done. He hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship. The major he’s lacking for a career Grand Slam, the Masters, has become a huge moving target. It has been wondered if he has lost the ability to close out tournaments, wondered if his confidence has wandered off, wondered if he can putt like he was 20 again. In many ways, he seems to be an old 30.

“This life, it makes you grow up quickly,” said McIlroy, whose birthday is Saturday. “I still feel like I'm one of the younger guys, but in my mind I'm not 30, either. I don't know what age I really am. It's sort of I was here when I was 20 and winning at Quail Hollow and that was sort of … but it doesn't feel like 10 years ago. It's a weird – I don't know.”

We don’t, either. McIlroy, who also won the Wells Fargo in 2015, has been somewhat cast into the shadows of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, among others. They are winning many of the tournaments that McIlroy should be winning.

e He HeHEHe has all the physical tools. He is frighteningly long off the tee, particularly for someone his size. He hits iron shots to dream of. He can get it up and down from a locked room. But what seems to have prevented him from further padding his resume has been his putting.

For the past year or so, he has been consulting with Brad Faxon, one of the game’s great putters. McIlroy says the best work they do is over a cup of coffee. Faxon has always said that one of the keys to his extraordinary putting is not being afraid to miss. McIlroy ranks 52nd on Tour in strokes gained putting, up from 97th a year ago.

He putted sublimely in winning the Players. But he was disappointing at the Masters, where he was never in the mix and tied for 21st. Now, he’s at the Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow Club where he has recorded a 61 and 62, scores no one quite sees on this difficult layout that hosted the 2017 PGA Championship.

In Wednesday’s pro-am, after a couple of early bogeys, McIlroy nearly ran the table, with seven birdies in an eight-hole stretch. Obviously, something about Quail Hollow agrees with him.

But no matter how he finishes this week (tee times), all eyes are looking toward the PGA Championship in two weeks at Bethpage Black in New York. How players prepare is as varied as the number of players themselves.

“If anyone's come up with a formula, I would love to hear it,” McIlroy said after Wednesday’s pro-am. “I would rather just have my game at a high level for as much of the year as I possibly can. If you're playing good enough, you're going to get yourself into contention more times than not, and you just hope that some of those weeks are the bigger weeks. But I think there are certain things that you can do.

“I mean, if I look back through all the success that I've had winning tournaments, whether it be a major or not, I always go back to the fact that, oh, yeah, I was in a really good place that week. What does that mean? How do you quantify that? How do you get yourself back in that place more often? And that's not necessarily hitting golf balls. It's doing other stuff and getting your mind in the right place. So that's why I've been quite, you know, outspoken about that because I think that's what will help me ultimately win more majors, is being in the right place mentally.”

McIlroy has been working on a few mechanical tweaks with his coach, Michael Bannon. But lately, he has been trying to satisfy his mind, reading books such as “The Greatest Salesman in the World,” by Og Mandino, “The Obstacle is the Way,” and “Ego is the Enemy,” by Ryan Holiday.

He believes that becoming more well-rounded as a person will enable him to be more well-rounded as a golfer. In some people, such maturity comes later in life. But for McIlroy, it seems to have arrived at exactly the right time.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf