ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) – Rory McIlroy caught his first glimpse of the course where he'll defend his PGA Championship title in August, and he liked what he saw of Oak Hill Country Club, with its mature trees at every turn.
“When I think of the PGA Championship, I think of courses like this. This course is timeless,'' McIlroy said Monday after shooting 67 on a practice round. “It's not only long, but it's hard to drive the ball well. You've got some chances out there.
“Then again, you've got a tough finish.''
The 24-year-old Northern Irishman, also the 2011 U.S. Open champion, has had a fairly rough year so far. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, lost in the opening round of the Match Play Championship and walked out of the second round at the Honda Classic in a display of utter frustration.
His game has since begun to slowly turn around, and although he has yet to win this year – and has been replaced at No. 1 in the world rankings by Tiger Woods – McIlroy has four Top 10 finishes in nine starts as the U.S. Open looms in two weeks at Merion in Ardmore, Pa.
Like Woods, McIlroy was never a factor in the Memorial over the weekend, but he felt as if he had ironed out some problems after closing with a 72 that left him two shots ahead of Woods at 294. Matt Kuchar won with a 12-under 276.
“I feel good going into the second major of the year. It feels very close. It really does,'' said McIlroy, who tied for 25th at the Masters with a 2-over 290. “I feel like it's one of these years where I can get on a run. I've had a couple of chances to win this year and I haven't taken them.''
Repeating as champion and taking home the Wanamaker Trophy is always a stiff challenge at the PGA Championship. Only five players have accomplished the feat.
Tiger Woods did it twice (1999-2000 and 2006-07), joining Denny Shute (1936-37), Leo Diegel (1928-29), Gene Sarazen (1922-23), and Walter Hagen (1924-27).
“I don't know why people have struggled to defend,'' McIlroy said. “I guess it must be the strength of the field. Come August, it's going to be a factor, too.''
Even though 99 of the top 100 players in the world rankings competed last year at Kiawah Island, McIlroy staged a personal clinic. He validated his record-eight-shot victory in the U.S. Open at Congressional by blowing away the field at the 2012 PGA Championship, also by a record eight shots. That back-nine collapse at the 2011 Masters was beginning to fade as McIlroy became the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros to win two majors. Woods was about four months older than McIlroy when he won his second major.
“Great players are defined by their major victories,'' McIlroy said. “Whenever you think about a golf legacy, you think about the majors. I guess I got off to a good start.
“I want to keep that going.''
McIlroy grinned sheepishly during his appearance when the moderator pointed out that he had 1.6 million followers on Twitter compared to 495,000 for his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. Seemingly forgotten now were the questions that had swirled last year that the romance was hurting his game after he missed four cuts in five tournaments.
McIlroy's father, Gerry, and caddie JP Fitzpatrick also made the trip to Oak Hill. During tournament week in August, McIlroy said he planned to rent a house, work out daily at a local gym and figured that either chicken or beef would be on the menu for his champions' dinner.
McIlroy conceded before the Masters that the adjustment to new clubs – part of a huge endorsement deal with Nike – had taken some time. But his driving has improved along with his confidence, and he says this year is different than last, no matter was the leaderboard says.
“I'm in a better place,'' he said. “I wasn't showing many real signs of promise for a couple of months. This year there are signs. Last year, it was at the point I didn't know if I'd ever play well again.''
With two legs of the career Grand Slam already on his resume, a win this year would put McIlroy in exclusive company. Dating to 1960, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus and Woods are the only players to win majors in three straight seasons.
“I'm feeling pretty good,'' McIlroy said. “I feel like I'm playing pretty well. I just need it all to click in.
“All parts of my game are there.''