HE’S a golfing heavyweight with a muscle mass to match. In the space of the past two months alone, Rory McIlroy has piled on the pounds through his rigorous gym sessions.
It’s paid off spectacularly on the golf course, as back-to-back wins in the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, not to mention returning to world No 1, testify.
“I’ve put on three kilogrammes (6.6lbs) of muscle in the last eight weeks, so that definitely helps,” said McIlroy in explaining the prodigious hitting that has helped set up the chance of him making it a hat-trick of wins when he heads the field for the 96th US PGA Championship starting tomorrow at Valhalla.
“I’m the heaviest (12st 4oz) I’ve ever been,” added the 25-year-old, who stands at 5ft 9in. “But does that mean I want to get heavier and try to put on more distance? I’ve definitely been hitting it longer over the past couple of years and I don’t feel I need to put on any more distance.
“If I can hit it over 300 yards (he averaged 317 yards off the tee at Firestone in recording his first WGC victory on Sunday) and in the fairway most of the time, I’m happy enough with that. The last couple of weeks have been the best I’ve driven the ball and hopefully I can continue to do that.”
While he’s brimming with confidence heading into the season’s last major – an event he won by a country mile at Kiawah Island two years ago and has recorded four top 10s in five appearances – McIlroy isn’t getting carried away by talk of this being the start of the ‘Rory era’ after nearly two decades of dominance by Tiger Woods.
“I’ve heard it and I’ve read it, but sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon,” said the 25-year-old. “I’ve had a great run of golf and I’ve played well over the past few months .
“I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and become one of the dominant players in the game.
“I felt like I had the ability to do that and it’s nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the world rankings, and competing in majors.
“I’m not necessarily sure you can call that the start of an era, but I’m really happy with where my game is at the minute and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible.
“People can say what they want, that’s fine. But I can’t read too much into it. I don’t think it’s productive at all to read anything about yourself so I try not to. If you read everything that was being written, I’d turn up on the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.”
He’s the red-hot favourite and is confident there’s still plenty left in the tank despite the energy it took to hold off a charging Sergio Garcia at Hoylake then overhaul the Spaniard in the final round in Akron.
“My game feels in really good shape and I’m coming in here with a lot of confidence,” said the three-times major winner before heading out for his first look at the Louisville course, having only just turned professional when the Ryder Cup was played here in 2008. “Historically, the [US] PGA Championship has probably been my best major. It’s been a tournament that I’ve really enjoyed and a tournament I’ve had some success in, so hopefully I can continue that trend this week.
“I gave myself yesterday off as I felt I needed to recharge a little bit. I was planning to come and play nine holes. But, after registering and getting myself organised, I didn’t go out on the golf course.
“Emotionally and mentally, it’s more fatiguing after you win a tournament than it is physically. So giving your brain and your head a day to rest is a good thing before you get back into it. But, at the same time, having all these tournaments back-to-back gives you less time to think about it (trying to win three in a row). You just get straight back into and I’ll be trying to play similar to what I’ve played the last few weeks.”
While first-time winners had almost become the order of the day in majors in the not too distant past, that trend seems to be over for the time being.
This year, for instance, Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer and McIlroy all added to previous victories in the game’s biggest events.
“I think experience and knowing what it feels like to be in that position is a huge thing,” admitted McIlroy.
“It took me a couple of goes to get comfortable with the position of being in the mix in a major on the back nine on a Sunday. You need those experiences to help you. It’s a very important part of trying to close out tournaments.”
In between his back-to-back victories, McIlroy paid a flying visit to Gleneagles, where he will be returning as part of Europe’s Ryder Cup team at the end of next month.
“I played the tenth hole 16 times that day,” he said of a trip in his role as an Omega ambassador. How many birdies? “Not enough,” he replied, smiling. “I need to play it better during the Ryder Cup.”