An older, wiser Rory McIlroy rolls out across Oak Hill this afternoon in defence of the US PGA Championship. He might even surprise a few people with the standard of golf he brings to the season's last major. There was a sign of that chirpy confidence returning in the candour of his answers, a willingness to engage and an optimism about his game that suggests a barren 2013 might not endure much longer.
In the endless search for the keys that might release him from his winless purgatory, McIlroy has been watching reruns of past successes, including his victory in this championship a year ago to claim his second major. He reminded a packed media conference that the form he brought to Kiawah Island was none too good either, save for the unrepresentative top-five finish at the WGC-Bridgestone the week previously. Before that lay a broken field of missed cuts.
"I'm feeling good. I had a really good nine holes of golf this morning. Played really, really well," McIlroy said. "I've been watching a few videos of last year at Kiawah and some of my best weeks that I've played and it sort of lifted me a little bit. I took some good things away from that."
Just about everybody in the game has contributed to the McIlroy debate. Arguments embracing his change of clubs, his change in management and the company he keeps have filled the golfing salons all year. McIlroy has for the most part dealt patiently with the heightened interest in his affairs. He acknowledges the right of the media and the golfing intelligentsia to wade in as they see fit, however discomfiting it has been. He also knows that only he has the power to affect change, and with that in mind decided against a visit to the sports psychologist couch touted after he missed the cut at the Open last month.
Back to the video therapy. "I think technical things, for sure; you look at the way you're swinging the club. But also, it's more than that; it's body language, it's how you carry yourself, it's all that sort of stuff, your little mannerisms. I guess it's just trying to remember those feelings and remember how I felt that week and trying to carry some of that into this week and just get those good, positive thoughts going."
Ian Poulter reminded us that McIlroy is only 24 years old, yet to come into his man years as an adult despite his successes on the golf course. Give him a break, he will work it out and win big again was the kernel of Poulter's wisdom. This is McIlroy's position entirely. "I mean, first and foremost, I just haven't been swinging it the best this year. I got into a couple bad habits with my golf swing, and it's just taken me a little bit longer to get out of them. Obviously, when you're fighting that so much, it's hard to play the golf that I want to play, which is fluid, which is free-flowing. That's the way I play my best.
"Trying to work on my swing so much this year has not allowed me to do that, and every time you play and you don't play well, it sort of chips away at your confidence a little bit, and it's just about building that back up. But I'm sitting here as confident as I have been all year, so I'm looking forward to getting going this week."
The return to domestic dominance, if not yet major majesty, of Tiger Woods has been of immense value to McIlroy in understanding his own difficulties. Observing the incremental, methodological gains that have taken Woods from the edge of oblivion back to the top of the world rankings has motivated him to work just as assiduously to reclaim his lost lustre.
"People were writing him off at this time a couple of years ago, whatever he was, outside the top 50 in the world. Now he's back to where he was a few years ago. So it's great to see. I think it's good for the game of golf. I'd love to be able to get my game back to where I know it can be and be able to challenge him."
Justin Rose is another hoping for a rapid resetting of old routines following the emotional high of his first major win at the US Open in June. Rose played only once after his success at Merion before arriving at Muirfield for the Open and admitted to being knocked sideways by the scale of his achievement. "I wasn't ready with my body. I wasn't ready with my game," he said. "I think it's the back slapping you get from everybody, which is obviously very nice but in some ways can prevent you from staying fully focused. Two months removed from that I feel like the trophy is back at home where it should be. I can reflect on it in my quiet moments but it is time to move on."
Rose's return to the real world was accelerated this week courtesy of a jolt in his courtesy car. "It was just a minor fender bender. It's embarrassing but no one was hurt." Rose's time in the naughty corner was mercifully brief thanks to the clanger dropped by last year's runner-up to McIlroy, David Lynn, who filled his petrol car with diesel while on the tourist trail to nearby Niagara Falls.
"I practised early on Tuesday and then left at 12 o'clock to see the Falls. Unfortunately, I put the wrong grade of fuel in the car when I was there. The car was having a good cough so we decided not to risk it any more and pulled into a service station. I had friends with me who were in a hire car. They were about five miles in front of us so I jumped in with them. At least I managed to keep the car in one piece, unlike the US Open champion."
A year to forget: McIlroy's troubles
February Knocked out by 64th-ranked Shane Lowry in first round of the WGC Match Play Championship.
March Withdraws during Honda Classic citing pain in wisdom tooth.
April Struggles in the Masters, eventually tying for 25th place with a score of two over par.
June Takes frustration out on nine-iron as he ends US Open on 14 over.
July Misses the cut at the Open after finishing on 14 over.
August 17 shots adrift of a rampant Tiger Woods at the end of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
US PGA Championship details
Selected tee-off times (all BST; US unless stated):
Starting at 1st hole
1.30pm S Cink, P Lawrie (Scot), R Cabrera-Bello (Sp)
5.35pm D Clarke (NI), T Watson, P McGinley (Irl)
5.55pm N Colsaerts (Bel), J Day (Aus), B Snedeker
6.05pm T Clark (SA), L Westwood (Eng), B Watson
6.15pm M A Jimenez (Sp), W Simpson, A Cabrera (Arg)
6.25pm R McIlroy (NIrl), V Singh (Fiji), M Kaymer (Ger)
6.45pm A Scott (Aus), J Rose (Eng), P Mickelson
6.55pm L Glover, I Poulter (Eng), Z Johnson
Starting at 10th hole
12.35pm H Mahan, P Casey (Eng), B Horschel
12.45pm H Matsuyama (Japan), S Stricker, J Dufner
12.55pm S Garcia (Sp), M Kuchar, R Fowler
1.05pm G McDowell (NIrl), E Els (SA), B Haas
1.15pm D Toms, P Harrington (Irl), Y E Yang (S Kor)
1.25pm H Stenson (Swe), D Johnson, C Schwartzel (SA)
1.35pm D Love III, K Bradley, T Woods
1.45pm P Uihlein, J Furyk, T Bjorn (Den)
6.10pm B Weekley, F Molinari (It), T Jaidee (Thai)
6pm-12am Sky Sports 1. Highlights: 1am, Sky Sports 1.
Weather Sunshine and showers, with poss-ibility of storms. Max temp: 27C.
Odds 4-1 Woods; 14-1 Mickelson; 16-1 Scott; 22-1 Stenson; 28-1 Rose, Snedeker; 30-1 Mahan, Westwood; 33-1 Bradley, Dufner, McIlroy; 35-1 Donald, Kuchar.Reuse content