Heading into his debut on the PGA Tour at this week’s Honda Classic, Rory McIlroy is atop of the golfing world, holding a firm grasp on the no. 1 spot in the world rankings for over a year.
He’s starting his year in America without any outside distractions, whether it may be legal or personal. He’s already won once in 2015, capturing the Omega Dubai Desert Classic earlier this month in his second start on the European Tour. (He finished second in his season opener at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January.)
McIlroy is looking forward to building on that momentum this week at PGA National, where he won in 2012 and lost in a playoff in 2014.
“I feel the golf course is a course that sets up well for me and sort of like a hometown event these days, being in this area for the last couple years,” said McIlroy, who is making his seventh start at the Honda Classic.
“So it’s been really nice. I’ve spent three weeks here and been practicing and playing away; it feels like quite a long time since I’ve teed it up in competition a few weeks ago. So excited to get back out there tomorrow and get a scorecard in hand and feel what it’s like to compete again.”
McIlroy makes his home in Jupiter, Florida, for much of the year. He plays and practices primarily at The Bear’s Club. However, recently, he was granted playing privileges at Dye Preserve, which is also in the area.
“They gave me a membership, yes,” said McIlroy when asked if he had joined the club. “I went out there and played one day and they gave me an honorary membership…it was really nice of Mr. (Joe) Webster (the club president) to do that.”
McIlroy has a well-thought-out schedule leading up to the Masters with the intention of peaking in time for the first major of the year — and the one he’d like to win to complete the career grand slam. At only 25, he’s mature and experienced beyond his years. He knows how to pace himself and how to ride out any momentum and confidence — which he isn’t lacking at the moment.
“I think you can’t burn yourself out,” said McIlroy, following his pro-am round Wednesday. “I think that’s one of the big things is you have to, like a took a complete week off after Dubai. I’ve had a couple weeks to practice and prepare leading up to this event, Doral next week, Bay Hill in a few weeks’ time.
“So, I think that those sort of natural rest periods are very important. But then you can start to build back up and get ready for these events. I think the biggest thing is just to prepare as best you can for each and every event.
“People talk about momentum and talk about sort of riding it, but I think momentum and confidence are two very similar things in golf. If you’re confident and you’ve had good performances, that confidence seems to carry on; and if you’re happy with how practice goes, then you’re obviously going to be confident going into tournaments.
“So that’s sort of how I’m feeling right now, and try to keep that feeling for as long as I can.”
What’s more, he feels at home as the world no. 1 player.
“I’m in a great position and I feel like I handle the position I’m in a lot better than I did a couple of years ago,” said McIlroy. “I’ve got more experience at it. I’ve spent well over a year of my career at world No. 1, so I’m pretty used to it by now.
“I don’t feel any extra pressure to be the face of the game. I think the game’s in great hands, not just with people like myself but some of the young stars that are starting to come through and play well; and even though there’s a few guys that have been at the top for a number of years that are struggling a little bit, I feel like the next generation coming through can definitely keep golf where it is, and it is in very good hands.”
With Tiger Woods’ ailing game that led him to take a leave of absence from competition until he feels his game is “tournament ready,” Rory is naturally the player who everyone is looking for to take over as Woods’ heir apparent, so to speak — he’s the guy that has separated himself from the pack a bit, particularly with his two consecutive major victories last year at the Open Championship and the PGA Championship. Unlike when he first reached top ranking in the world after he won the Honda Classic in 2012, McIlroy has been much more well-equipped and prepared to handle the pressure and spotlight. In fact, he wants to be that standout player, like the way Tiger Woods has long been the face of the game for most of this century.
“Yes,” said Rory when asked if feels comfortable being “that” guy.
“Because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. You know, it would be pretty I would be wasting my time if I was out there practicing as much as I do and putting as much into it if I didn’t want to be in this position, and wasting the people’s time around me, as well, that helped me get to this point.
“Of course I want to be that guy. I want to be the guy that I said it last year, golf is waiting for someone like that to step forward, put their hand up and win the big tournaments and sort of become I think it’s harder to become as dominant these days with technology and course conditions and the depth of the fields. Everyone’s got a lot more knowledge and knows a lot more good the game, and everyone just works harder and are more professional at what they do.
“This is the position want to be in and I want to be in it as long as I can.”
McIlroy, who has nine victories on the PGA Tour, including four majors, wants to win even more — one of his goals heading into this year is to play his way into contention more consistently.
“I’ve got nine PGA Tour wins, which in two or three years, isn’t too bad; it’s pretty good,” he said. “But I want to make that a lot more. I want to get myself into contention a lot more. I have, but I want to I’ve been on a good run over the past sort of six months, especially, you know, finishing off on The European Tour last year and into this year where I’ve been first or second, seven events in a row or whatever it is.
“Just try to keep that consistency up, and then challenge for the bigger events. I was pretty pleased with my performances in the majors, obviously with the two wins, but even the couple that, an eighth in Augusta, which was my best finish to date; and I felt like I was close at the U.S. Open but just didn’t quite have it that week, but it was still a reasonable performance. And just carrying on from there and giving yourself a chance to win basically every time you tee it up.”
While McIlroy already has Augusta National on his mind, he’s not letting it consume him.
“I feel like I’ve got a nice schedule going into Augusta,” he said. “I’m not playing too much, but I’m playing just enough that I should be as sharp as possible going in there. I haven’t thought about it.
“What I really thought about over the past couple of weeks is getting ready for these events coming up, which is going to be here, Doral and Bay Hill, and trying to play as well as I possibly can in those; so that gives me a little confidence going into a little break to prepare as well as I can for Augusta.
“From what I’ve heard, they haven’t made any changes this year up there…I guess not put too much emphasis on it; treat it like I have done every other Masters and go there.
“You can prepare as much as you want, but if you get there on the week and you don’t execute the game plan or what you’re trying to do so it’s a matter of going there and being prepared but not over thinking it.”
Per usual, McIlroy will be taking a trip to Augusta National in March several weeks prior to the event to play several practice rounds. Last year at the Masters, he was first out and played with a marker, Jeff Knox, the club champion. Knox ended up beating McIlroy by a shot in the third round. Instead of feeling embarrassed, McIlroy was impressed with Knox’s game, especially his local knowledge around the greens. He’s said in the past that he planned to utilize Knox’s expertise and it appears that is still in the cards.
“I think I shot 71 maybe to Jeff’s 70,” said McIlroy, referring to the third round of the 2014 Masters. “So even though everyone said, oh, you got beat by an amateur, not many amateurs can shoot 71 off the Masters tee at Augusta.
“A lot did come out of it. I picked his brain a little bit on the way around, and I’m sure I’ll catch up with him when I make a visit up there in a few week’s time.”
McIlroy obviously will be a force to be reckoned with throughout the year, but look out for him at Augusta National, especially if he’s rolling the rock better than he has in past years.
“I’m very comfortable at Augusta from tee-to-green,” he said. “It sets up pretty it sets up very well for me. And yeah, I probably haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities that I have given myself over the past few years, even in 2011 I was leading by four going into the last day and I felt like I missed everything.
“If I can have another ballstriking week like that, but just be a little better on the greens, you know, sooner or later it’s going to all fall into place for me.
“The more you play it, the more you get comfortable around the greens, and as I said, I don’t think they have made any changes this year. So it’s going to be a similar setup to what we’ve played the last couple years, and the more times you go back there, the more comfortable you become.”