RORY McIlroy has pinpointed an unexpected chance to unleash his driver at Royal Aberdeen as the catalyst for him becoming world No 1 again and heading into this week’s 96th US PGA Championship bidding to complete a hat-trick of wins.
From his first outing of the year – the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship – the 25-year-old’s driving has been imperious this season and, in truth, it was astonishing that, before racking up back-to-back victories in the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in the space of a fortnight, his only other success had come in the PGA Championship at Wentworth.
In hindsight, it was only a matter of time before McIlroy started to reap a rich reward for mastering so majestically a part of the game that has become Tiger Woods’ Achilles heel, and he revealed the double triumph that has taken him above Adam Scott in the world rankings had been ‘Made in Scotland’.
“I’ve been driving the ball great all year, but I hit a few drivers that I wasn’t planning to on the Sunday of the Scottish Open at [Royal] Aberdeen,” said McIlroy, who averaged 335 yards off the tee – 35 yards more than the field’s average – as he overturned a three-shot deficit heading into the final round to win his first WGC event at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, on Sunday, by two shots from Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
“I hit some drivers off tees that I didn’t plan to and hit them really well. I took a lot of confidence from that going into Hoylake. It put it in my mind that maybe I could go there and hit a couple more drivers than I thought I was going to.” McIlroy has seen that confidence off the tee “funnel through the rest of my game” while, and this was certainly evident at both Hoylake and Akron, he feels more mentally attuned than arguably any other time in his short but remarkable career.
“This is better,” replied McIlroy to being asked how he felt his overall game compared to the last quarter of 2012, when he romped to victory in the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island and looked set for a lengthy reign as world No 1, only to see his career stall for a bit as he adjusted to an equipment change.
“I’m more in control of my ball and my ball flight,” he added. “Mentally, I’m really sharp, too. It’s the most comfortable I’ve ever felt trying to close out a golf tournament out there today. I felt normal. I felt like it was the first round or the second round. It didn’t feel like a fourth round.
“I didn’t get ahead of myself. I didn’t think about where I was in the tournament. I just kept playing my shot after shot after shot. I wanted to come here with a mindset of not being complacent and not just enjoying myself after winning at Hoylake. I wanted to contend and it’s great that I was able to do that.”
McIlroy’s first victory in a WGC event was his 14th title triumph as a professional and now he’s a red-hot favourite to claim a fourth major this weekend in Louisville, where, in traditional fashion, the Open champion will have the Masters winner, Bubba Watson, and Martin Kaymer, this year’s US Open champion, for company in the opening two rounds.
“Three majors, PGA Tour wins, European Tour wins, Ryder Cups, world No 1 … a World Golf Championship was the only thing that was sort of missing on the CV,” he admitted. “It’s great to finally get one and there’s still one more WGC to come up this year [the HSBC Champions in Shanghai in November] and hopefully I can add that to the list. I’ve worked extremely hard and I’m reaping the rewards of it now. I just feel like I’ve just had this renewed focus and dedication and it seems just to be paying off.
“I was licking my lips when I saw this place [Firestone]. It’s soft and these are my conditions. This is my bread and butter. This is what I really enjoy, hitting the ball through the air and target golf. I didn’t have to do anything really different at Hoylake because the conditions were pretty soft anyway, but I feel like the run of golf courses we’ve got coming up are going to suit me.
“I haven’t seen Valhalla but, from what I’ve heard, you need to hit it pretty long and drive the ball well.”
It’s the fifth time that McIlroy has been world No 1 and, on this sort of form, he looks destined to be the game’s dominant force for as long as he wants to be, barring injury or matters such as the managerial break-up that is currently in the hands of the Irish law courts having an adverse effect on his game.
“Not to think about it too much and not to feel like you’re defending it all the time – just to go out and play,” said McIlroy of how he planned to learn from his previous spells as the game’s top-ranked player. “It’s a nice honour, but I don’t think you should go into tournaments thinking about it or thinking, ‘oh, this guy could pass me if I don’t finish in this position, or this guy could do this’.
“I think you just go and you play and you try to win golf tournaments and my goal now until the end of the year is just to try to win as many golf tournaments as I can. It’s not to try to finish No 1 in the world. It’s just to get as many titles as possible.”