McIlroy vows to lighten up and get out of his own way

Simon Lewis at Ballyliffin

Eleven starts. One victory. Five missed cuts.

It has been a mixed bag for Rory McIlroy, this Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and when the tournament host tees off at 1:20pm today in the opening round of the 2018 edition, the four-time major champion will look to roll back the clock to more carefree days in order to regain the national Open title he won at the K Club in 2016.

Now 29 and married,

McIlroy cuts a mature figure as he surveys the European Tour event he helped put back on the map and which he is proud to say is the biggest tournament of the week, the quality of the field in terms of world rankings outstripping its PGA Tour counterpart at the Greenbrier even if the $7m (€6m) prize fund here in this Rolex Series event is marginally smaller than the $7.3m (€6.2m) on offer in West Virginia.

It is an achievement every bit as impressive as the four major titles on his resumé yet four years removed from the most recent, the 2014 PGA Championship, and three months on from final-day disappointment at the Masters, McIlroy feels he needs to lighten up if he is to claim more of golf’s biggest prizes, including his national Open.

His problem has been trying too hard and despite saying he would not lose sleep if he never won another major, the Irishman believes he has yet to reach his potential and letting go may be the key to maximising that rare talent.

“I think you always have to be willing to feel in order to succeed,” McIlroy said yesterday. “I think the way I’ve approached the game at some times this year, I haven’t been willing to, I’ve been sort of too careful and I haven’t been willing to hit the right shot or hit driver when I need to be aggressive.

“So yeah, I think just being a little more carefree. That sounds bad.

“I don’t want to be carefree but I think that’s the way I play my best golf and if I can get back to that freewheeling, carefree approach, that will do me a world of good.”

Augusta in April saw him play well enough to make the final group on the last day of the Masters but fail to bridge the three-shot gap to 54-hole leader Patrick Reed and instead finish tied for fifth, six shots back.

“He insisted he has learned his lesson to ensure that does not happen again should he find himself in the same situation in the Open at Carnoustie in two weeks.

“Yeah, not be careful. Not try to be too perfect. Not try to control things that you can’t control. Just go out and play your game.

“You know, get out of your own way, I guess. That’s the one thing that I need to do better, and it’s more a mental thing rather than anything physical. I just have to approach it better mentally.

“I think as you get older; it’s natural as humans and your natural instinct to become a little more careful. Like you take way more risks when you’re a teenager than you do in your 20s than you would do in your 30s and it’s only natural to be that way, not just in golf but life in general. I just need to get back to playing the game like I was a teenager.”

McIlroy knows he has the potential to add to his already Hall of Fame-bound career and after a decade on Tour feels better equipped to fulfil it.

“I’d like to think all the experience that I’ve gained over the past 10 years of being a pro will only help me be a better player going forward. Everything that I’ve done over those past few years, as long as I put the adequate time in to maintaining the physical side of the game in terms of being able to hit the ball well and do all that stuff, you know, with all the experience I’ve gained, I feel I’ll be better equipped to handle certain situations.

“So I feel like it can only be an advantage, so that’s why I think that, you know, I’ve done so well. I’ve done well so far to get to this point. There is more left in the tank, but I’m not having nightmares about if it doesn’t happen.

“It’s more that I think people don’t understand how mental the game is. I feel if my mental approach to the game can just be better, I think that could make the world of difference. Because I know, okay, maybe I can become a little more consistent in some areas but it’s not as if I lack the ability to play the certain shots."

“I feel like I’ve got every shot that I will ever need. It’s just about maybe doing it on a more consistent basis, but I feel the way to be able to do that on a more consistent basis is to be able to put your mind in a frame where it allows you to do that. So that’s sort of where I’m getting at.”

How he gets to that point will be the next challenge for McIlroy and this week’s Irish Open may point the way but he is determined to find the answers.

“I’ll always reach out to someone if I feel like there’s something I need or I have a question,” he said. “I think it’s more just looking within yourself and trying to figure out what you need to do.”

Perhaps aware that he had bared his soul a little too openly, McIlroy joked: “Gone very deep there for a while, sorry,” leaving his audience with a smile that suggested he is already on the right track.

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