The world number four, without a major since the second of his PGA victories at Valhalla two years ago, believes the final major of the year, starting at Baltusrol Golf Club tomorrow, represents his best chance this season of a fifth major title.
The 27-year-old from Holywood is coming off a tie for fifth at The Open two weeks ago, a distant 16 shots behind champion golfer Henrik Stenson but re-energised by a week’s practice with coach Michael Bannon and looking forward to returning to the US parkland challenge Baltusrol will provide.
“I felt like I played pretty well throughout the week,” said McIlroy of his Open effort, having been drawn to play in the worst of Troon’s weather. “I felt like I handled the conditions pretty well that I had to play in, but, yeah, I feel like coming to courses like this and conditions like this at Baltusrol, it’s more of my type of golf, I guess, and I feel like I can really do well this week. I feel like my game is in good shape.
“I feel like I’m swinging it well. I’m hitting it good. Every aspect of my game, I’m very comfortable with, so, you know, combine that with the layout of the golf course here, and I feel like this is my best chance this year to win a major.”
Having recalibrated his game with Bannon to resume target golf at Baltusrol this week, McIlroy is keen to sign off on the major championship trail this year with a victory to catapult a campaign in which the Irish Open remains his only win.
Asked to provide one word to describe his season so far, the Irishman thought hard before replying: “I don’t know, neutral. Sort of a little bit of neutral. I feel there’s been times where I got a little bit of momentum, and then sort of got set back a little bit. It’s sort of been a little stop-start in a way... I’m trying to stay as positive as I can. I feel like I am positive, because my game is in good shape, but I guess just maybe running out of patience a little bit and trying to make it happen.
“Grade (for) this year, I’d say like a B-minus, maybe B. It’s okay. I could change that into an A-plus on Sunday. There’s a lot of golf left, last major of the year, and I want to give it my all to get in the mix and try to win another one of these things before I have to wait another eight months to try to get another opportunity at Augusta next year.”
While McIlroy was scheduling major number five, Shane Lowry was sizing up the PGA Champions’ locker-room. The US Open runner-up has been knocking on the door of a major victory for two years now, but he had innocently found a quiet corner in the Baltusrol clubhouse to talk to Irish reporters, only to be later gatecrashed by 2008 PGA winner Pádraig Harrington.
“I’m looking for your name,” Harrington joked to Lowry, as he pretended to peruse the lockers assigned to himself, McIlroy, Jason Day, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson to name but a few former champions.
“It’ll be in here next year,” Lowry fired back with a smile.
Six weeks on from the heartbreaking loss of his four-shot lead at Oakmont, when Dustin Johnson pounced on the Irishman’s final-round woes to win his first major, Lowry feels he has got the lost opportunity out of his system and, after a missed cut at The Open, is ready to get back down to business.
“I’ve had a bad few weeks, nice few days off, looking forward to getting back playing,” he said. “After the US Open, I had a lot of expectation on myself, [making the team for the] Ryder Cup and going into different tournaments, really wanting to win again.
“I need to get back down to business and hit one shot at a time and try and shoot some good scores. I am putting a lot of pressure on myself.
“I went into the US Open with no expectation, no pressure on myself at all, it was like: ‘You know what, this is probably not going to be my year for the Ryder Cup.’ Thinking a bit like that, then all of a sudden the week after that, the pressure is straight back on. I need to get back down to business and see where that takes me.”
Lowry said he believed he had pressed the reset button and made the required mental shift.
“I think I have. I met Neil [Manchip, his coach] a couple of times last week, just more for chats than anything else. Just trying to get back down to going out and shooting a good score. If I can go out and shoot under par here on Thursday I’ll be happy, and then go out on Friday and try and shoot under par.”