“It’s chalk and cheese – just polar opposites,” admitted the two-times major winner after carding a course-record 64 at Royal Aberdeen to set the pace in the £3 million Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
McIlroy walked off the course in last year’s Honda Classic before suffering a meltdown in the Open Championship at Muirfield, saying he felt “unconscious” and “brain dead” during an opening 79 that led to him missing the cut.
But both his game – he bagged eight birdies in a seven-under-par effort that trimmed two shots off the record held by Aberdeen amateur Mark Halliday – and mind are in much better places for the 25-year-old’s latest bid to land the Claret Jug.
“This time last year I was searching for things,” recalled McIlroy, who holds a one-shot lead over Argentina’s Ricardo Gonzalez and Kristof Broberg, from Sweden.
“I was working on a few things in my swing to try and get the ball under control and was not really too confident with anything.
“This year I’m really confident with what I’m doing with my swing.
“I’m controlling my ball flight really well and that translates into going out and shooting good scores.”
Asked if he felt stronger mentally at the moment than any other time in his career, he added: “It’s right up there. I’m more confident than ever in my ability and I am more confident than ever in my ability to hit the shots I need to in winds like this. I feel like I’m as prepared as I have ever been to play this sort of golf.”
While he won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, McIlroy has failed on a number of occasions this season to capitalise on the sort of sensational start that lit up the opening day of the first European Tour event to be held in the Granite City.
At The Memorial, for instance, he followed a first-round 63 with a 78 while the Honda Classic (63-66), The Masters (71-77) and the Players’ Championship have been other occasions when good work on Thursday has been unhinged by his Friday efforts.
“I feel like sometimes this year when I’ve got into the lead, as I did in the Memorial, that I’ve sort of focused a little too much on where I am on the leaderboard instead of just going out and trying to play another solid round of golf,” he admitted.
“That’s the way your mindset should be, so I’m going to focus on that tomorrow instead of trying to keep in the lead. I will try to play a solid round of golf, execute the shots the way I want to and, if I can do that for 18 holes, it should add up to another decent score.”
Reaping the benefits of some links practice at Royal County Down last week, McIlroy’s opening effort included four birdies in a row from eighth, with another of his gains against par coming after he drove the green at the 436-yard 13th.
“Any time you start a tournament with a score like that you are very pleased and it’s obviously something to build on for the next three days,” he said. “But, regardless of the score, the way I played today was the most pleasing thing.
“I was really pleased with how I controlled my ball flight. Due to some of the shots that I was practising over the last ten days, I was able to go out there today and control my game. To be able to trust in a tournament was great.
“That’s the type of golf I need to play on courses like this and over the next few days and also next week that’s what I will be aiming to do.”