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Nine years later, a different Rory McIlroy returns to Kiawah Island

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – As fortunes go, it’s not as though Rory McIlroy arrived at the 2012 PGA Championship riding high.

He’d missed the cut in three of his previous five starts, finished last among those with weekend tee times at The Open Championship and, if not for a decent weekend at Firestone in his final tune-up, he probably would have started the year’s final major on the cusp of a bona fide slump.

But he took advantage of calm conditions on Day 1 at Kiawah Island (67) and endured the worst of the week’s weather on Friday for a 75 that felt like a 65.

“Probably the best round of the week for me was the Friday. I think the scoring average that day was 78. I think I shot 75, which I was delighted with,” he recalled Tuesday in his return to Kiawah Island.

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But it was all window dressing for what turned out to be his most dominant performance as a professional.

The 2011 U.S. Open might have been his Grand Slam breakthrough and the ’14 Open Championship certainly tugs at the Northern Irishman’s heart strings, but none of his 19 PGA Tour titles, or eight international bouts, can compare to his performance at Kiawah.

By comparison, the now 32-year-old will begin this week’s PGA Championship on the Ocean Course in ascent. He’s fresh off his third career victory at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago and has inched past Dustin Johnson as the betting favorite in many circles. He’s also back at a place where he lapped the field by eight strokes in ’12 to win his second major championship; although for those looking to connect dots, know that McIlroy has no interest.

“It’s nine years ago, [but] it seems longer,” he said. “It seems like there's been a lot of time that's passed, and I feel like I'm a different person and a different player. You know, it's a different time of year. Probably going to be a different wind than we played in the last time, so it's going to play like a completely different golf course.”

Rory hoping to tighten up game at PGA Championship

Rory hoping to tighten up game at PGA Championship

Whether McIlroy plays as a completely different player remains to be seen. For all the momentum he picked up at Quail Hollow Club, he’s been consistently quick to temper expectations for this week and beyond.

Although his victory two weeks ago was a long time coming, he’s preached the same message for months – stay patient and within the process.

“It was a great sort of validation that I'm working on the right things, but it was just a step in the process,” he said. “It was wonderful to get the win, but even if I had come away from Quail without winning, I think I still would have been very encouraged with the sort of golf that I played.”

He likely would have also arrived in the Low Country among the week’s favorites even if he hadn’t won at Quail Hollow, based almost entirely on his performance at the ’12 PGA. Eight-stroke blowouts have a tendency to jog even the foggiest memories.

McIlroy has major fun at Thomas' expense

Rory McIlroy took a friendly shot at Justin Thomas, who is still stuck on one major win. And Thomas gave it right back. Slightly.

“Rory was giving off that [Tiger Woods] vibe at the time, if I think back. That was his second major win, and he'd won both majors by eight, that sounds pretty Tiger-esque to me. That was the early-Tiger kind of moves,” said Adam Scott, who finished tied for 11th at the ’12 PGA. “It looked free flowing and he was driving it much longer than most others that week, and straight, and rolling putts in. When talented guys like a Tiger or a Rory start doing that, it does make the game look easy, even on a really tough course.”

But as Rory pointed out, he’s not the same player he was the last time the golf world turned its gaze to this coast. Although still one of the longer players off the tee, his ability to dominate with his driver has been mitigated by an influx of youth and brute force. He’s also endured his share of struggles since that signature victory at Kiawah Island.

Before this month’s Wells Fargo Championship, he’d gone nearly a year and a half without a Tour victory and the pandemic and golf’s quiet return had taken a toll.

“I said at the time it was like playing practice rounds. It's easy to lose concentration,” McIlroy said. “I watched the Champions League semifinals a couple weeks ago and those guys play 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.”

But this week the crowds are largely back at Kiawah Island and so is a slightly aged Rory. It might be a different course, it might be a different time, but he’s still Rory.