Having admitted on a number of occasions that he struggled to find a spark playing in events behind closed doors last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, McIlroy said it had been no coincidence that his return to winning ways recently came in front of fans in the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.
Crowds will again be in attendance at this week’s US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island where he won the same event in 2012, and McIlroy is hoping he can feed off the atmosphere once more in his bid to land a fifth major title and first in nearly seven years.
“It's funny, ever since I was 16 years old I've had thousands of people watch me play golf pretty much every time I teed it up,” said McIlroy in a press conference for the second major of the season.
“Playing in that environment for 14, 15 years and then sort of going the complete opposite, it's just different. It was like playing practice rounds. It's easy to lose concentration.
“Everyone is used to a certain environment. I watched the Champions League semi-finals a couple weeks ago, guys playing in that for the first time in their careers and they're playing in an empty stadium.
“I mean, that just must be terrible. That's not at all how you dream of being in a squad like that and playing in a massive game. You want to play in front of people and you want to feel that atmosphere.
“It's unfortunate that in these times a lot of people don't have that experience, but I am glad that we're getting back to some sort of normalcy and, when you hit good shots and hole putts, there are claps and rewards and encouragement.
“I feel like that's all a part of tournament golf and competitive sports at the highest level. Yeah, love the mashed potatoes guys again. I don't even care about the stupid comments. I'm just glad that everyone is back here.”
McIlroy missed the cut in last month’s Masters, won by Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, but the Northern Irishman is in a better frame of mind for this assignment on the back of that much-needed confidence boost at Quail Hollow.
“Yeah, different, very different,” he admitted. “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. 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.”
Unlike McIlroy, European No 1 Lee Westwood will not be heading to Japan in August. “I've given notice that I'm not going to play in the Olympics," said Westwood, also speaking at Kiawah Island.
"Many, many reasons. I have a few family commitments, and I already proved a few weeks ago that playing seven in eight weeks is not good for me.”