CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Friday afternoon at The Players Championship in March Rory McIlroy figured he was close.
“Like with anything, the slightest change in your swing is going to feel uncomfortable for a while. It's not like it's that far away,” he said at TPC Sawgrass.
Two weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, he offered a similar assessment of his game: “I played solid,” he shrugged. “I played solid and kept it in play and holed some good putts when it mattered. Yeah, just happy.”
Another fortnight down the road, another Friday and an even more upbeat evaluation at the Masters: “I mean, honestly, I'm quite encouraged with how I hit it on the way in,” he said.
If you couldn’t tell by the tone or tenor of those quotes, a common theme here is that McIlroy didn’t play the weekend at any of those stops. In fact, he’s not played a meaningful round of golf on Saturday or Sunday in two months which would explain why the normally breezy lad had an even lighter step Friday at Quail Hollow Club.
Not only will McIlroy be around for the weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship, but he’ll be within a lob wedge of the lead thanks to a second-round 66 that moved him to 4 under par for the week.
“Going to put it in the GPS in the Quail Hollow Club, yes, I'm going be here,” he laughed when asked if he’d be able to find the course on Saturday.
Friday was much more on brand for McIlroy with the type of high-octane game that makes even a big and burly track like Quail Hollow gettable. He gained 5.73 shots on the field in strokes gained: tee to green for the day. It was his best ball-striking display since 2019, although the always thoughtful Rory digested that tidbit in his own unique way.
“I only hit five fairways. There you go. Take that, traditionalists,” he said with a smile.
After missing the cut by 10 shots at The Players, he said he was close. After failing to advance to the knockout stages at the WGC-Match Play, he preached patience. Even after rounds of 76-74 at the Masters, which always hurts a little more than other MCs, he talked of progress.
But did he believe all that psychological mumbo jumbo?
“When you play the way I played sort of through that stretch in March and into April, you're going to feel like you're not as close as you probably are,” McIlroy said.
This is hardly a “Rory” issue. Playing cat and mouse with reality is a part of everyday life on Tour. It must be, otherwise the fragile spirit would pin its self-worth on a game that takes so much more than it gives.
“I've had some times Friday nights, just felt really awful. That's just kind of the nature of this business,” said Peter Malnati, whose string of missed weekends in individual events stretched back to January before he turned things around at Quail Hollow. “But I never woke up Saturday morning and said I need to go find something new - I need to find a new philosophy, a new swing, a new anything.”
Being optimistic is normally the easiest thing for professional athletes, but there is a point of diminishing returns. For McIlroy that likely came at Augusta National where he’ll face another year of unanswered questions and unfulfilled legacies. In many ways it likely felt like rock bottom for the 32-year-old. Another Saturday, another weekend to figure out - or maybe it’s fixate - on everything that’s not right with his game.
Rory winced when asked what he’d been up to the last two months of Saturdays.
“Actually, I was saying we went to the Bahamas for four days after Augusta and I was saying to Stewart Cink, I actually enjoyed watching him play Hilton Head,” he said. “We would go to the beach in the morning and come back up at 3 or 4 p.m. and I would watch the back nine of the golf. I thought it was really cool just seeing him and [Cink’s son/caddie] Reagan win there.”
After a week off to clear the mind, McIlroy was back at it alongside his camp’s newest set of eyes, swing coach Pete Cowen.
“I put my head down and worked hard and at least felt better about everything coming in here,” he said.
There was a legitimate level of confidence when he arrived at Quail Hollow. Perhaps it was misplaced and manufactured or perhaps it was rooted in a soul that’s played golf at the highest level before and a course that’s been something of a playground for most of his career.
Even after Thursday’s 72 he was confident. He was close, right? McIlroy’s second-round 66 suggests he is closer than we all might have thought and, even more encouraging, he finally has a weekend tee time to prove it.