LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This isn’t about driving accuracy or even driving distance, although that simple statistic seems to provide a neat bow when explaining Rory McIlroy’s current run of brilliance.
It’s not the Northern Irishman’s drastically improved putting or even that 3 additional kilos of muscle he’s packed on in recent months. Nor does this have anything to do with his relationship status, which publically and dramatically went from committed to carefree with his broken engagement to Caroline Wozniacki in May.
McIlroy’s dominant run through the dog days is the direct result of peace of mind. A sport’s psychologist will charge $200 an hour to identify it, but at its core the world No. 1 is playing well because of a rediscovered clarity of thought.
“It’s fun. It is fun,” he said on Friday after scorching a soggy Valhalla Golf Club with a second-round 67 for a one-shot lead at the PGA Championship.
If Bubba Golf is an “A ticket” thrill ride filled with equal parts peaks and valleys, Rory Golf, at its best, is a joy ride. Towering drives, flawless approach shots, deft lag-putting and lots of smiles.
McIlroy’s Friday wasn’t perfect, he missed five consecutive greens starting at the second hole, and he freely admitted his Day 2 “wasn’t quite as pretty as (Day 1)” but there was no mistaking the fact that it was fun.
Analysts, be they armchair or otherwise, will continue to dissect the differences between 2014 McIlroy – who has won three of his last seven starts, including July’s Open Championship and his World Golf Championship tune-up last week in Akron – and the 2013 version, but what is right with Rory can’t be found on a TrackMan or in the PGA Tour’s ShotLink program.
“What I really like is he’s got his emotions under control. He doesn’t look like anything is coming too fast to him,” said Dave Stockton Sr., McIlroy’s putting coach. “This time it’s, ‘Keep having fun.’ Everybody talks about swing, I can’t comprehend hitting the ball as far as he does, but I can comprehend the mental strength I saw at the British and last week at Firestone.”
A case can be made that McIlroy’s newfound peace is at the least an indirect result of his split with Wozniacki. The 25-year-old seemed to suggest as much on Friday.
“What else do I have to do?” he figured. “I get up in the morning I go to the course, I go to the gym. It’s my life at the moment.”
And at the moment life is good.
There was a foreboding feeling across Valhalla that had nothing to do with a forecast that lingered on the horrible side of bad for much of the day. If Friday was McIlroy’s “bad day” the golf world may be bound for another runaway major victory like the one he pieced together last month at Royal Liverpool.
We enjoyed this show the first time we saw it, at the 2011 U.S. Open, and the encores in ’12 at Kiawah Island and this year at Hoylake. The difference this time is the careful way he has embraced greatness.
All the talent in the world doesn’t assure results, look only to Dustin Johnson whose physical superiority has been undercut by off-course distractions and dubious decisions.
There is no backdoor to a quiet mind, which McIlroy learned throughout a difficult 2013 when he failed to win a PGA Tour title and was questioned for everything from his decision to make a wholesale jump to Nike Golf to a series of curious legal battles with former agents.
Slowly, methodically McIlroy has distanced himself from that noise and the result has been increasingly stellar results even when his game was not at its best like on Friday.
After a sloppy start in increasingly sloppy conditions, McIlroy rolled in a 31 footer for eagle at the 18th hole (his ninth hole of the day) to move two strokes clear of the field.
In what is becoming his signature bounce-back style, he followed another bogey at the second hole when he missed a fairway for the first time since June, or at least it seems that long, by playing his last three holes in 2 under par, including a majestic 5-wood from 242 yards at the par-5 seventh to 8 feet for a two-putt birdie.
“It was very impressive and hard to beat,” said Martin Kaymer, one of McIlroy’s playing partners who knows a thing or two about impressive golf following his boat-race triumph at June’s U.S. Open. “He is by far the best player in the world.”
A decade ago competitors were uttering the same words about Tiger Woods, and while comparisons to the former world No. 1 remain wildly unrealistic the like-minded singular focus demonstrated both players when they are at their best is uncanny.
“Mentally I’m in a really solid place in terms of not getting ahead of myself on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “I’m just on a good run.”
Or, put another way he’s just in a good place.