ORLANDO, Fla. – It immediately became one of those golf lore moments two years ago when Rory McIlroy ended a PGA Tour victory drought that had stretched nearly a year and a half.
McIlroy had swooned all the way to 13th in the world ranking and was fresh off a missed cut at the Valspar Championship the week earlier when he arrived at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational. In one of those blessing-in-disguise deals, the free weekend gave him the chance to work with putting guru Brad Faxon.
The payoff was immediate.
McIlroy held off Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Bryson DeChambeau with a closing 64 at Bay Hill for a three-stroke victory. That he led the field in putting for the week was lost on no one.
The putting whisperer had worked his magic and, in retrospect, sent McIlroy on a path back to the world’s top ranking. But even in that Sunday twilight at Arnie's Place, the Northern Irishman eluded to a much deeper transition.
“Freed up my head more than my stroke,” McIlroy admitted. “I sort of felt like I was maybe complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts.”
McIlroy’s slide in the world ranking and his absence of trophies was the byproduct of many factors. There were injuries that kept him from playing his best and plenty of doubt regarding his putting stroke. It is the natural inclination of every golfer to complicate things, and doing such was keeping McIlroy from living his best life, both on and off the course.
What emerged from that benchmark moment was a clarity of thought that continues to evolve and impress.
“Sort of feel like this was the start of a two-year journey to get back to this point,” McIlroy said on Wednesday at Bay Hill. “I spent an afternoon with Brad Faxon at the Bear's Club, something stuck with me from that afternoon and I was able to win and that was my first win in 500-whatever days.”
Since then he’s added victories at the ’19 Players Championship, RBC Canadian Open and Tour Championship, and this season’s WGC-HSBC Champions. He was voted last season’s PGA Tour Player of the Year and he’s missed just four cuts in his last 47 events.
The brilliant simplicity of Faxon’s method for putting aside, this goes well beyond a friendly afternoon spent on the practice green at the Bear’s Club. For McIlroy this was a transformation of mind more than body or technique.
The evidence is there when McIlroy talks about whatever book he’s reading at the moment or explaining his thoughts on complicated and nuanced subjects, like the proposed Premier Golf League, in simple and thoughtful terms.
It’s been there in victory and defeat.
When he began last year with five consecutive top-5 finishes there was no degree of frustration or self-sabotage, just an unwavering belief that he was on the right path. It was a path that led to victory at TPC Sawgrass in his sixth start last year and set the foundation for his FedExCup winning campaign.
Faxon’s steady hands certainly helped McIlroy’s putting and, Rory being Rory, he continues to make incremental and detailed gains based on areas he identifies as deficient – currently that list includes his bunker play and putts between 6 to 12 feet. But the real growth here can’t be quantified by ShotLink.
“Mental more than the game,” he said when asked if he’s grown more mentally or as a player the last two years. “I have done things in the game previous to two years ago that were maybe higher than what I've done the past couple of years. But from a mental perspective, the consistency and showing up every week even when I don't have my best stuff I'm able to still get in the mix and have a shot at winning tournaments. So mentally over these last few years I've definitely gotten better.”
Part of that maturity was natural. He turned 30 last spring and was married in April 2017. He’s also gotten to the stage of his career where he’s comfortable with the road behind him even if he remains unsure what lies ahead. But most of all, he’s simply comfortable with himself.
The journey that McIlroy began two years ago at Arnie’s Place has delivered him back to the world ranking promised land, but more importantly, it’s led him to a better place in mind and spirit.