WGC-Bridgestone Invitational 2014: Rory McIlroy seeking an end to the bad stuff

The Northern Irishman enjoyed his Open victory but he is not dwelling on it. Instead he is hard at work searching for consistency, writes Kevin Garside

The Claret Jug is in the United States with him, but not for long. The old pot is destined for a place on mum’s sideboard back home in Northern Ireland. Pride is for parents. Rory McIlroy has got things to do. Yes, he’s filled it with this nectar and that, his mates have had a swig and there has even been a snap of golf’s finest silver on the McIlroy throne. Lads eh? 

But this is not 2011. The Open Championship, fine as it is, was not the first time he had crossed the major threshold. Oh it felt mighty all right. At dinner with the family and afterwards on a night out in Liverpool with, among others Justin Rose, McIlroy was suitably euphoric. By the end of last week he was back on the Palm Beach range flogging golf balls. And today he goes into the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a shot at back-to-back victory.

This is a 25-year-old with a hunger not simply to win the big prizes but to define his sport in a way few have. Jack Nicklaus is 74 years old and is still the game’s ultimate reference point. That is what you call a legacy. Tiger Woods is the most-prolific hoarder of trophies the game has seen, gobbling majors at a record rate in his youth. And he is still not done with the pursuit of the magic number 18 posted by Jack. That is what you call a legacy.

McIlroy wants one of those, too; a legend to compare with the greats. The final major of the season, the PGA Championship, begins at Valhalla on Thursday. Two years ago in the shadow of the Olympic Games McIlroy won his second major – as he did his first, the 2011 US Open – by eight shots at this championship in Kiawah Island. He wants this just as badly. The next one is the only one for McIlory, an incurable impulse that is shaping a fine career before our eyes.

“I could have taken the rest of 2011 off and been totally happy winning the first one,” he said. “Winning the first one is just sort of a relief, especially how I did it after the Masters and everything. It was a bit of a weight off my shoulders. It (the Open) feels pretty similar to the second one at the PGA because I set myself some goals after that which I wanted to achieve. I went ahead and nearly achieved them all.  Didn’t quite win the Fed-Ex Cup, but apart from that, it was a really good year, and I achieved everything that I wanted to. Again, same thing, just reassess your goals and keep moving forward.”

The search for mastery does not in his case centre on the perfect shot, but rather outcomes he can trust. McIlroy seeks an end to the bad stuff, the really awful days when the game spools out of control beyond his means to reel it in. This is a game-management issue, which in turn is rooted in maturity.

The implosion of 2013 had nothing to do with the way he strikes a golf ball but his attitude to life and his gifts. There have been occasions when he forgot how much focus and work is required to keep the ball and himself in a straight line. When he should have been adjusting to the feel of new Nike clubs he was flying around the globe in the wake of a girlfriend that would become, for a brief period, his betrothed. One week it was skiing, the next he was posting loving snaps from Sydney Harbour Bridge. When he turned up for work at the Honda Classic in February last year, no wonder he had a toothache.

He had been there before, as a  16-year-old phenomenon cleaning up in the Irish amateur scene. McIlroy was just too good. The winning was easy and as a result he exhausted the experience to such a degree he sought, for a few mad days at least, his kicks elsewhere.

“I was ready to give it up. I just won the Mullingar Scratch Cup. I was with dad. It was like a three-hour drive and I said to him, I don’t like this anymore. I don’t enjoy it. I’m not happy, I’m not excited. I went back home and didn’t play golf for about three days. I look back on it, and my parents were actually so good. ‘Look, Rory, we just want you to be happy and do whatever you want to and enjoy it.’  Probably on the inside they’re saying, ‘What’s he thinking? What’s he doing? There was no panic. It was just me being a grumpy teenager.”   

So as he rolls post-Open into the next phase of his career it is consistency he seeks, not the killer shot. The fiancée, Caroline Wozniacki, is gone. His business arrangements are in his own hands. Though there is a court case in Dublin with his former management company Horizon to negotiate, that is a matter for lawyers, and there is still time to make all that go away should he wish.

For now it’s all about the golf. “If I can get myself in the right frame of mind week in, week out, and give myself some little mental triggers throughout the week, like I did at The Open Championship, then hopefully, I’ll have a lot more of those on weeks. Everyone goes through their ups and downs. There are plenty of players that would like to be as inconsistent as me. I’m not afraid of my inconsistencies. But if you said there’s one thing I’d like to get better at, it would just be a little bit more consistency. Hopefully, I’m on the right path.”

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