Two days before the PGA Championship tees off, Rory McIlroy already delivered the shot of the week.
Asked how much his second major championship victory in the 2012 PGA at Kiawah meant to him at that particular moment of his career, McIlroy spotted 2017 PGA champ Justin Thomas standing in the back of the room waiting to take the podium next. He directed a dagger directly at the world No 2.
“It was huge. You know, a lot of guys have won one major, but it’s a big hurdle to get to the second,” he said with a huge laugh as Thomas doubled over. “So it was good to get that monkey off my back, especially here playing so well. It was a big deal. I definitely didn’t want to get stuck on one for a long time.”
On his way to the stage to share a hug with Rory, Thomas whispered a good-natured expletive under his breath to reporters. Given the mic for a rebuttal, JT took note of McIlroy’s drought-busting win at Quail Hollow two weeks ago.
“I can’t really say too much, other than it’s great to see him win,” he said. “I know it’s been a really long time for him, so I’m glad to see him. But at the same time, I really don’t want to egg him on because usually when he wins he likes to reel some off, and with a lot of big tournaments coming up I don’t really want to poke the bear.”
McIlroy has a lot to feel bullish about returning to the scene where he won his first Wanamaker Trophy by a record eight-stroke margin, but he’s quick to say that it means nothing this week.
He’s a different person than he was nine years ago when he sported a curly mop of hair on his then 23-year-old head. And the golf course will play very differently in a dry May than it did in a stormy August.
“It’s nine years ago. It seems longer,” he said. “It seems like there’s been a lot of time that’s passed, and I feel like I’m a different person and a different player. You know, it’s a different time of year. Probably going to be a different wind than we played in the last time, so it’s going to play like a completely different golf course.
“I played great here last time, obviously, and won my first PGA and my second major, but just because I did that doesn’t mean that I’m going to find it any easier this week than anyone else.
But yeah, look, I’ve maybe got some better memories and better vibes here than most of the other guys do, and that’s obviously nice, but not sure it’s going to enable me to play any better.
The seasonal difference is significant. By August after months of hot weather, the course is more plush than it is now. Plus, the last PGA was doused in the middle by a torrential storm that transformed the course from the highest scoring round in PGA history on a blustery Friday to a target course on a weekend McIlroy shot 67-66 to run away from the field. The forecast looks dry and fairly calm this week.
“One of the biggest differences that I’ve noticed is it’s not going to be as easy around the greens as it was last time,” he said. “Last time in August it was hot, humid, the paspalum (grass) was like really strong and dense and lush, so the ball would just sit right up on top and it was so easy to just get your lob wedge out, clip it, spin it.
“I feel this year they’re a little more bare, a touch linksy in places, especially with the wind and the dry weather. I don’t think it’s going to be quite as simple as it was around the greens like last time. … I chipped and putted so well that week, and that’s what won me the tournament.”
Winning his last start in a familiar place was a significant boost to McIlroy’s confidence and validation that he’s working on the right things to move back toward the No 1 ranking in the world he held last year.
Among the pieces of his rebuild are weekly sessions with noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, including a five-hour consultation at Michael Jordan’s exclusive south Florida course, The Grove.
“It’s nothing that I haven’t heard before, but Bob just puts it in a way that is so simple and can make you laugh and some of the stories that he can tell and some of the stories that you can relate to yourself in some ways,” McIlroy said.
It all has him in a very different place than he was before the Masters, where he missed the cut.
“I went into the Masters searching and feeling like I was somewhat on the right track but still hadn’t seen any progress on the golf course,” he said.
“I was in that transition period. Just having those extra couple weeks after Augusta to work on some more stuff and then go to Quail Hollow and start to see some good shots under pressure, I was like, oh, this is feeling a little more comfortable.
“I’m happy with where my game is, so I guess if I go out and play my game and do what I know that I can do, then I can see myself shooting good scores on this golf course. So that’s sort of where I’m at.
Whether that means I win or not, that’s partly up to me, but that’s partly on how the other 155 guys in the field play, as well.