We were having a fine run-up to this, the 103rd PGA Championship, even before Rory McIlroy’s TaylorMade TP5x golf ball tumbled into the cup at the 72nd hole of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. Nearly all of golf’s young gun stars and marquee names had won since the turn of the year: Bryson Dechambeau, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa - it was an all-star cast.
But throw Rory’s name into the mix? Now things really get interesting.
While Collin Morikawa is defending champion of last year’s Coronavirus-delayed PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, Rory will defend his title from 2012, his first Wanamaker Trophy, won here at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course.
He was a different Rory back then, and this is a different Ocean Course. Back then Rory was in full ascension. Gone was the bad scare of blowing a gargantuan back nine lead at the 2011 Masters. At the 2011 US Open at Congressional, he had nuked the field by eight shots and busted nearly every major championship scoring record, including, at the time, the lowest 36-, 54-, and 72-hole aggregate, score-to-par, and margin of victory.
The 2012 PGA Championship victory followed 14 months later. It was a surprise, actually, but a welcome one. You’ll remember Rory wasn’t playing well coming into the 2012 PGA.
“I think I missed four of my last six cuts, and played okay at Akron the week before. But I sort of got here to this course, and some weeks you just have a good feeling. Some weeks you just sort of go with it, and it was one of those weeks that it felt good,” he aw-shucksed at his media center interview Tuesday, reflecting upon his win nine years ago.
He closed with a blistering 66 and another eight-shot victory, breaking a record Jack Nicklaus had held since 1980. The back nine was more of a coronation than a dog fight. His opponents fell away like leaves, and Rory lifted the Wanamaker at the edge of a shimmering sea with the entire world at his back. He had achieved escape velocity, mega-star status.
Oh, those heady halcyon days. He even dated European tennis star Caroline Wozniacki -- until she wanted to get married right away, so he dropped her like third-period French.
Then came 2014. He was now the sun, and the golf world orbited around him. Rory did what Hall of Famers do, what legends do, throw a back-to-back job at the record books. Rory bagged both the Open Championship at Hoylake (that’s Royal Liverpool, for those of you scoring at home) and the PGA Championship at Valhalla, edging out Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in semi-darkness and a blinding rain to win the latter.
Rory was the next Tiger -- until, as happens in golf, he sputtered a bit.
Since 2015, Rory’s had a close call here or there at a major or two and a win at The Players Championship, but he’s been stuck on four majors for a long time. But now with a huge win just two sort weeks before a major, has the old McIlroy returned? Can he go back-to-back at Kiawah’s beautiful, but brutish seaside links?
“I see a guy at a watershed moment for him,” explained writer Brian Keogh of the Irish Sun, one of our most reliable on all things Ireland, especially Rory, who he’s covered for more than a decade. “He’s 32 hasn’t won a major in seven years, and he’s in a swing rebuild, but that win brought about lots of expectations.”
Keogh also said that McIlroy’s been working recently with Bob Rotella, the famous mental-game guru who worked for decades with Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington, who between them brought back five major championships to Ireland and the U.K. It may have been just a one-day session shortly after the Masters, but you could tell from McIlroy’s interview yesterday that Rotella’s holistic “What, me worry?” approach to playing competitive golf is having an effect.
“I've been playing golf for 30 years, so, sort of, it's automatic. I don't really think about it….I try to visualize what I'm going to do, and then I try to replicate what I have just visualized,” he said. “It sort of goes back to playing golf as you did as a kid, without a yardage book, and just sort of eyeballing it and playing it a bit more by feel.”
Sources from the Ocean Course report that Rory didn’t have the strongest practice session or play all that well out on the course, but that really doesn’t matter. As long as the wind blows as expected off the Atlantic Ocean, this should be a marathon, not a sprint.
“It's a really tough test, especially when the wind is blowing like this. Those last few holes out there are brutal,” he stated, his eyebrows raised in genuine respect. “And if the wind keeps up like this again this week, that's what you're going to have do well is chip and putt well. But I think you're going to see guys playing a lot of different shots this week than maybe you saw back in 2012 around the greens.”
The Ocean Course is as unlike a typical PGA Tour venue as you can find. You have to adjust to the wind, the sandy wastes, and the ludicrously long rough in places. And McIlroy grew up that type of golf every day. And the wind is a great equalizer, a cross-wind even more so. Look how Tom Watson played the crosswind like a Stradivarious violin at Turnberry in 2009, nearly winning the Open Championship at age 59.
McIlroy is beloved wherever he plays. Even during a Ryder Cup -- like that epic match against Patrick Reed at Hazeltine in 2016 where they were yelling at each other like Godzilla and Kong – American fans will root against him, but they won’t hate or heckle him, if you understand the nuance. He’ll have the place rocking like Foo Fighters if he’s in contention.
So as we turn towards tomorrow, Rotella would have been proud of his pupil’s phlegmatic demeanor. McIlroy ended the interview with another Alfred E. Neuman moment.
“A lot has changed, and I think a lot has changed for the better," he said. "I'm standing up here probably more confident in myself, happier with where I am in my life, and yeah, just sort of enjoying life…enjoying everything a bit more.”
Then he grinned, shrugged, and with the right kind of eyes, looked nine years younger, and said simply, “Yeah, it's all good.”
Yes, it certainly is all good to be Rory McIlroy, win, lose or draw. But of course it would be better with a Wanamaker Trophy in the picture come Sunday.