DUBLIN, Ohio – After limping his way through most of 2013 Rory McIlroy has come alive over the last fortnight, scorching a defenseless Muirfield Village on Thursday with a 9-under 63.
That he did so with an actual limp only adds to his aura.
“I wear spikes and sometimes your foot can get stuck in the ground,” said McIlroy, who also tweaked his back last week at the BMW PGA. “It’s strange. I’ve never really had that before.”
It’s worth noting that throughout 2013 pundits attributed McIlroy’s relatively pedestrian performances to distractions, specifically his jump to Nike Golf, and yet he’s playing his best golf since he won the 2012 PGA Championship amid the most intense media maelstrom.
Last week the 25-year-old announced he had broken off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki and endured an emotional press conference on the eve of the European Tour’s flagship event.
Despite the distraction, the Ulsterman rallied from seven strokes back on Sunday with a closing 66 and his first victory of 2014 and first on European soil.
Following a transatlantic flight on Monday and more questions about his failed engagement, McIlroy began his round with a stress-free opening nine of 32. That’s when things got interesting.
He birdied No. 10 and eagled the 11th to move into the lead before a poor sand wedge from 113 yards at the 14th hole found the bunker. From there he “made a mess” of things, needing four strokes to reach the putting surface on his way to a double bogey-6.
“I hit my sand wedge 116 yards and needed to take a little off and just flipped it left,” McIlroy said.
He would rebound with an eagle at the par-5 15th and another birdie at the par-3 16th before closing his day with two clutch par saves coming in for a commanding lead and his best opening round since a 63 at the Honda Classic earlier this season.
While many observers tried to tie McIlroy’s improved play to the clarity of thought that comes after a milestone event, he quickly dismissed it.
“It's been coming,” he said. “My performances have been really good, been shooting really good scores. There's just been runs of holes in tournaments where I haven't played so well, and I've shot 4 or 5 over in the space of nine holes, and that's really just derailed my tournament.
“Last week I just didn’t do that.”
Perhaps McIlroy’s off-course issues have caused him to throw himself into his work. It’s not an entirely foreign concept, but there is also no denying that his game had been trending in the right direction for some time.
He won the Australian Open in December and has five top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this year, although he concedes many of those results were of the “backdoor” variety.
“I was expecting this to happen,” he said. “Honestly, I don't think it's anything to do with what's happening off the golf course.”
He’s also been on runs like this before. In 2012 he won three events (including the PGA and two FedEx Cup playoff tournaments) in four starts and dominated the field on Thursday with just 22 putts and solid ballstriking (hitting 13 of 18 greens in regulation).
“It’s a very hard golf course,” Jordan Spieth said. “Anything under par is a good score. Obviously, Rory didn’t think that.”
McIlroy said earlier this week that he wanted to focus on his golf, not his broken relationship with Wozniacki. On Thursday at Muirfield Village he made the rest of us do the same thing.