McIlroy coming off win but still searching at Kiawah Island

National Sports

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, lines up a putt on the 14th hole during a practice round at the PGA Championship golf tournament on the Ocean Course Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Kiawah Island, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt York)

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — For Rory McIlroy, winning didn’t take care of everything.

McIlroy missed the cut at The Players Championship, then admitted he messed up his swing trying to keep up with long-hitting Bryson DeChambeau. Another missed cut followed at the Masters and McIlroy fell to 15th in the world, his worst ranking in more than a decade.

Three weeks later, he showed up at Quail Hollow and won. His first victory in 18 months was enough to make him the betting favorite at this week’s PGA Championship, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, but McIlroy’s recent struggles remain fresh in his mind.

“It was a great sort of validation that I’m working on the right things, but it was just a step in the process,” McIlroy said Tuesday.

“I want to get better. I want my game to get better. I want to become more consistent,” he added. “It was nice to see some results pretty early on. But I feel like there’s still a long way to go.”

Returning to Kiawah Island, where McIlroy won the first of his two PGA Championships nine years ago, doesn’t necessarily fill him with confidence, either. With the PGA’s move from August to May, the Ocean Course is firmer, windier and less forgiving this time around.

McIlroy, too, has changed. He still had curly hair spilling out of his cap and roundness in his cheeks when he bounded his way to an ebullient eight-shot victory in 2012. Now he’s 32, a married father with flecks of gray in his close-cropped hair and a taut, wiry frame.

“Yeah, everything has changed, really,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’m a completely different person.”

Case in point: McIlroy’s celebration, or lack thereof, after he won the Wells Fargo Championship. He could have been any dad returning from a long day at the office.

“I got on the plane at about 7:45 on Sunday night, got home probably around 10 o’clock, put (daughter) Poppy to bed, and I took a shower and went to bed myself,” McIlroy said. “I was exhausted.”

McIlroy’s recent search to recover his form led him to add swing coach Pete Cowen to his team and have some long chats with sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Asked what he was seeking from Rotella, McIlroy quipped, “a lobotomy.”

“Look, 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,” McIlroy said of the informal therapy sessions. “We’re in contact every week, and I really value his input.”

The work paid off at Quail Hollow and put McIlroy back near the top of a sport that, for now, lacks a dominant player. He is No. 7 in the world. Four of the players above him have one victory apiece this year, and No. 3 Jon Rahm and No. 4 Xander Schauffele are winless. The hottest big name in golf is Jordan Spieth, who dipped to 92nd in the world in January but since then has a win and six other top-10 finishes in nine starts.

McIlroy will play Thursday and Friday with another two-time PGA champion, Brooks Koepka, who is still recovering from knee surgery two months ago. McIlroy and Koepka each have four major titles — trailing only 50-year-old Phil Mickelson, who has five, in the 156-man field.

McIlroy got his second major out of the way early. When he was asked what that meant to him, he spied Justin Thomas, whose only major came at the 2017 PGA and who was awaiting his turn at the podium.

“A lot of guys have won one major, but it’s a big hurdle to get the second,” McIlroy said, his eyes fixed on his friend as he sharpened the needle. “I definitely didn’t want to be stuck on one for a long time, so happy to get that second.”

Given an opportunity to rib McIlroy in response, Thomas was gentle.

“I can’t really say too much, other than it’s great to see him win. I know it’s been a long time for him,” Thomas said. “I don’t really 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.”

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