Lost And Found: McIlroy On Way Back

MIAMI | As Rory McIlroy was about to leave the scoring area just after finishing his last interview of the final day, Donald Trump, dressed head-to-toe in Good Humor white, just had to come over and shake his hand. Well done, The Donald exulted, complimenting McIlroy on his mental toughness and wishing him all the best. The very best was actually what hundreds of spectators in McIlroy’s gallery got out of the 23-year-old Northern Irishman in the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Smiling early with an eagle on his first hole and often the rest of the way, he treated them all to a rousing round of 65 Sunday that left the lad in a far different frame of mind than nine days earlier 90 miles north up I-95 in Palm Beach Gardens. “I’m relieved,” McIlroy said following a weekend that saw him post 10 birdies and an eagle in his last 26 holes. That was a long way from the 26 holes he had completed in 7 over at the Honda Classic, when he skulked off the course in total disarray, leading to a firestorm of criticism over his self-described rash decision. Expectations, not to mention a sore wisdom tooth and a balky swing, had a lot to do with that uncharacteristic meltdown, as McIlroy explained in his mea culpa news conference three days later. “I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform and I’ve been working so hard and not really getting much out of it,” McIlroy had said. “It was a build-up of high expectations from myself coming off the back of such a great year last year, wanting to continue that form into this year and not being able to do it.” His decision to quit, he added, “sort of released a valve and all that sort of pressure I’ve been putting on myself just went away. I was like ‘just go out there and have fun.’ It’s not life or death out there. It’s only a game. I had sort of forgotten that this year.” McIlroy’s memory clearly kicked in this weekend, when he posted a 3-under 69 Friday, his first sub-par round this season, then backed it up with the second lowest score of the final round (to Adam Scott’s 64), vaulting the world No. 1 into a tie for eighth. All this good news came a week after he said his confidence “was probably the lowest it’s ever been.” Now that he has seemingly climbed out of that abyss, McIlroy said he believes he’s now “heading in the right direction,” even if he also admitted that “I still have a long way to go. “I probably wear my heart on my sleeve a bit. If I have a bad round, it’s like the end of the world. But if I play a good one, I’m happy again. I was pretty down about my game coming into this week, but a few days like I’ve played, it does my confidence a world of good. “A day like today felt a long way away if I’m honest. That’s been one of my problems. I always think when I’m playing bad that it’s further away than it is. That’s where I have to stay patient and let whatever happens, happen and know that if I put in the hard work, the results will bear fruit. Whether that’s sooner or later, it doesn’t really matter.” Many of McIlroy’s playing peers said this week they could easily relate to his early season problems. Justin Rose, the Cadillac defending champion, recalled his own coping difficulties after his stunning tie for fourth place at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale. In that final round, the Englishman holed out 60 yards from the flag and tied for fourth as a 17-year-old amateur, becoming an instant national hero. “I originally had a three-year plan,” Rose said. “But all of a sudden after the Open, I think the expectations are what I really, really struggled with. I learned that golf’s tough. Golf’s hard. It’s a game that can bite you and it also taught me to appreciate the good moments as well.” Even before McIlroy’s exquisite Sunday display, Rose had no doubt that despite his early season struggles with his swing and his head, he would clearly pull himself out of that mini-spin in short order. “Facing a little bit of pressure and expectations that’s on Rory right now, he has the skill set and the talent to turn it around a lot quicker,” Rose had said. “It’s a funny game. Doesn’t take long to turn around either way.” Matt Kuchar, who also experienced early success as an amateur, and agonizing failure early in his professional career, also felt McIlroy’s pain. “Golf has gotten the best of everybody at times,” he said. “You can feel like you’re so far away from ever playing good golf again, but then it can be the very next day where you go, ‘Holy Cow! I found it and I’m ready to go. I’m ready to play great golf and contend for tournament wins.’ ” McIlroy found that out for himself this memorable day. And clearly, much sooner than later.


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