June 6, 2023

PITTSFORD, NY — About six weeks ago — that is, suffered a missed Masters Tournament cut, self-imposed break, and tied for 47th at the Wells Fargo Championship — Rory McIlroy was talking pies. At the time, he looked poised to win big again, exuding as much confidence as you did before your Thanksgiving dessert became a fire hazard.

“I have all the ingredients to make the cake,” McIlroy said at Augusta National Golf Club, where his quest to complete the Grand Slam career would once again stall. “It’s just putting all those ingredients in there and getting the oven to the right temperature and letting it all come to fruition.”

This week’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, the second major tournament of the year, cannot elevate him to the Grand Slam fraternity as he has won the event twice. But a win or a strong performance would dispel the doubts that have sprung up around McIlroy, who is number 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking but has been constantly overshadowed by his failure to capture a major championship since 2014. The skepticism has only sharpened in 2023, which started with a victory in Dubai, but then alternated between admirable outings and dizzying disappointments.

Despite his membership at Oak Hill, McIlroy has been reluctant to announce any kind of home field-field advantage since he lives in Florida after all. He understands full well that his prospects depend not on a mob of benefactors, but in part on whether he can adequately eradicate the harsh distractions: the critics, the history, the noise around his home as arguably the PGA Tour’s foremost spokesman in an era of tumult in professional golf.

On Tuesday, he seemingly wanted nothing to do with the uncertainty of the sport (“I don’t have a crystal ball” was his six-word answer to a 34-word question). Nor did he want to dwell on whether his break after the Masters had worked. (“I don’t know,” he replied. “I needed it at the time. Whether it works or not this week remains to be seen.”)

But, perhaps more revealingly, he was also a star athlete who openly complied with the feeling that he had to play with fewer expectations rather than more. The bravura was measured, the self-confidence present without being suffocating or sanctimonious.

“It wasn’t really Augusta’s performance that was hard to overcome, it’s just more the mental aspect and the draining of it and sort of trying to get your mind in the right place to move forward again, I think.” ” he said. He later added that he was just “trying to go out, play a good first hole of the tournament, and once I do, try to play a second good hole and go from there.”

He may be able to quickly assess his prospects, as his swing has been a major concern in his circle for the past few weeks. His issues – “the face of the club got a little too open on the way back, really struggled to straighten it out on the way down, then it got closed again a little too quickly,” as he summed them up on Tuesday – are the kind of locating problems that would go unnoticed, or at least unsolved, on most driving ranges.

In a forum like the PGA Championship, those trials separate the elite from the crowd of also-rans that will be thick as the field includes 156 players. McIlroy, who noted that the precise timing of a swing can be the difference between a ball shooting 20 yards to the left or 20 yards to the right, has scarcely wavered in his quest for a solution. McIlroy, a four-time major tournament winner, spent last week with his coach in Florida, eschewing the FaceTime analytics that underpin numerous modern pro careers.

McIlroy is fine-tuning, not revising, insisting there’s “nothing drastic I need to change”. Perhaps he’s right, because golf delights and betrays with only so much warning: Jon Rahm’s march included a tie for 39th, a tournament withdrawal, and then a tie for 31st. Then came April and a Masters green jacket.

“There are ups and downs,” Rahm said Tuesday, reflecting broadly on the challenge of remaining successful in sports, especially in such a fickle sport as golf.

“Even Tiger had downs,” he said later, referring to Tiger Woods, the 15-time major tournament winner. “Maybe his downs were shorter, maybe his downs were different in his head, but everyone had them. It’s part of sport. I hope – I think as a player you have to hope that your low is not as low as others .”

McIlroy has not missed two major cuts in a calendar year since 2016, and he has not missed consecutive major cuts since 2010. discipline and patience and detours around the course’s 78 bunkers.

He is sure, this time more modestly, that he is close to a breakthrough.

“If I can play the way I feel I can, then I still believe I’m one of the best players in the world and can produce good golf to have a shot at winning this week,” he said.

But he’s over, he suggested, defined by some scorecard, past the need for the ferocious mentality that propelled him to his last PGA Championship win in 2014.

“If I don’t win a tournament for the rest of my career, I still see my career as a success,” said McIlroy. “I still stand here as a successful person in my eyes. That’s what defines that.”

He wouldn’t mind eating that pie though.