RORY McIlroy has arrived in Royal Aberdeen via Royal County Down, Royal Liverpool – and Europe’s party capital, Ibiza.
It’s an unusual journey, admittedly, but, the 25-year-old reckons a “lads’ trip” to the bustling Balearic island can be just as important to him as valuable links’ practice at those two other destinations over the next fortnight.
He’s used a visit to Royal County Down last week to “get a hang” of hitting the links shots that were once second nature as a young amateur yet are somewhat alien now due to the fact he mostly plays target-like golf on the PGA Tour.
He’s spent two days at Royal Liverpool reacquainting himself with a course he last played in 2003 and will head back there next week believing a 2-iron could be a secret weapon in his bid to win the Open Championship for the first time.
He is hoping his Claret Jug challenge will be bolstered by having a card and pencil in his hand this week, having included the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open on his schedule for the first time since 2009, when it was still at Loch Lomond.
Yet, of all those things, you get the feeling that the chance to live like a “normal 25-year-old” for a few days could be what makes McIlroy a genuine challenger in both of Phil Mickelson’s looming title defences.
“I had just over a couple of weeks off and in the first of those I went on holiday with a few of the boys, which was nice as I just chilled out,” revealed McIlroy of the sort of break that wasn’t really on the agenda during his two much-publicised relationships – first with teenage sweetheart Holly Sweeney, then, of course, Caroline Wozniacki.
“It was the first time in about four years that I had gone on a lads’ trip,” he added. “It was great and it was nice to get away from golf for a little bit. It was nice to have that chance to recharge the batteries.”
They were almost empty 12 months ago when McIlroy suffered a meltdown during the Open Championship at Muirfield, claiming he was “unconscious” and “brain dead” during a first-round 79 that effectively cost him his chance of making the cut in East Lothian.
Reflecting on that disappointment during a visit back there yesterday to open the world’s first Nike performance centre at Archerfield Links, he admitted: “I was struggling with my game and I was searching for answers to loads of things.
“It was just one of those times where I wasn’t playing well and nothing was going right.”
While a single victory – albeit in the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth – represents a poor return for McIlroy in the first half of the year, given how majestic his game has looked at times, he’s in much better fettle heading into the Claret Jug joust this time around. “Since getting back [from Ibiza], I’ve re-focused on what lies ahead,” he said. “The last seven or eight days have been good as I’ve played a bit of links golf, including a visit to Royal County Down, and worked with Michael [his coach Michael Bannon]. Steve McGregor [his fitness trainer] also came over, so we were in the gym every day, too.
“It was a good productive week all round and I worked on a few shots that I think I’m going to need over the next couple of weeks, depending on conditions of the courses and also the weather. It’s just a case of trying to get back into a links frame of mind and how to play certain shots, the way you have to play on these courses.”
After deciding to give three stagings of the event at Castle Stuart a miss, McIlroy has jumped at the chance to play in the Scottish Open’s first visit to Royal Aberdeen. And he’s not alone with defending champion Mickelson also being joined by the likes of Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.
“Castle Stuart is a modern golf course with big wide fairways and big undulating American-style greens. The reason I never played there is that I didn’t feel it would prepare me that well [for The Open],” said McIlroy.
“Looking back, it wouldn’t have been bad to get some competitive golf but I think moving the Scottish Open to Royal Aberdeen is a big improvement and I think that’s why there is such a strong field heading there this week. People want to play competitive golf on a links before moving on to The Open but, at the same time, the Scottish Open is a big event in its own right and I think it should be staged on a links course.
“I’ve played well on a links course as a professional before, including in the Dunhill at St Andrews and The Open in 2010. When you play links golf a lot, you get the hang of it but in the last couple of years I’ve gone straight from playing on the PGA Tour into links golf and that’s not easy.
“There’s no substitute for getting a card in your hand and playing competitively and I think it’s going to be important for me playing in the Scottish Open. I want to go to Royal Aberdeen and try to win the tournament – and I feel I am playing well enough to do that. That will set me up for a good run at Hoylake.
“I still think St Andrews is my best chance to win an Open Championship because of the way it sets up for me and how comfortable I am on that particular golf course. But seeing Hoylake over the last couple of days, it is a very score-able golf course. You have to play the four par-5s well and by that I mean two or three under each round if you want to make any move on the leaderboard.
“A low score won there the last time and I think it will be a similar story this time, though that will depend on the weather conditions obviously.”
Whatever Mother Nature delivers in both the north east and Merseyside, McIlroy is aiming to get his head down and get on with things in the second half of the season.
He added: “I said at the start of the year that I wanted to get back into giving myself a chance of winning majors.
“I was 8th in The Masters but was disappointed to fall away in the last two rounds of the US Open after being in a good position at halfway. There’s still two majors left, so there’s a lot of golf left to play this year.”
“I feel like the combination of practising last week and now getting some competitive links play under my belt this week is going to help me a lot [for The Open].
“I won big tournaments on links golf courses and shot good scores on them as well. I hold the course record at St Andrews with 62 and shot 61 at Portrush, which isn’t shabby at all. Of course I can play links golf; it’s just a case of getting a hang of it again and I think this week of competitive play is going to be really good for me.”