For the first time in forever, Rory McIlroy looks happy on the golf course

Rory McIlroy celebrates a birdie on the seventh hole at Oak Hill on Friday. After a rough start, McIlroy finished with four birdies on his final seven holes.
Getty Images

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Why did we fall in love with Rory McIlroy? Because he made it look so easy. All of it: golf, life, superstardom. The kid la-di-da’d his way through every round, every press conference, every autograph signing. On the course he dazzled with an overwhelming talent and off the course he charmed with Old World manners.

Whereas Tiger Woods brought a siege mentality to superstardom, forever wary of outsiders, McIlroy was comfortable in his own skin, enjoying a very public life and merrily documenting all the fun on Twitter. That McIlroy has struggled with his game during this transition year has not been that surprising; every golfer has peaks and valleys, and this feel player extraordinaire has always been streaky, even when he wasn’t moving to a new country, breaking in 14 new clubs or changing his management team. No, the real stunner this year has been watching McIlroy’s comportment between the ropes. This most carefree of players had turned into a sullen teenager: shoulders slumped, head bowed, a faraway look in his eye that spoke to his confusion. To walk off the golf course mid-round, as he did at Honda, or to bend a club beyond repair, as he did at the U.S. Open, were only little glimpses at the roiling inner turmoil. In interviews McIlroy was still polite but a new defensiveness had crept in. He largely retreated from Twitter, the ultimate sign of surrender in this digital age. McIlroy had become so withdrawn it was easy to imagine that after bad rounds he was sitting in the dark, listening to emo.

After a second round 71, McIlroy is right where he began at this PGA Championship: even par. Only now he’s seven strokes off the lead and staring up at more than two-dozen players. He probably won’t defend his PGA title but that hardly matters. The biggest revelation of the first two rounds has been his lightness of being. For the first time in forever McIlroy looks happy on the golf course. Shoulders back, chin up, the little strut is back. Of course, every player is perkier when putts are falling, and McIlroy has been benefited from a tip by his putting guru Dave Stockton, who urged a longer, more languid follow-through. But what McIlroy has done here transcends mechanics. He has found himself, in a very meaningful way. That was obvious in the way he brawled with Oak Hill in the second round, which began for him on the 10th tee.

Playing through the worst of the morning downpour he double-bogeyed the 15th hole and then bogeyed 17, 18 and No. 1. At four over par he was staring down the gunbarrel of his second straight missed cut in a major (to say nothing of a 75-76 weekend at the U.S. Open). But McIlroy kept grinding, birdieing the third and fourth holes to get back within the projected cut line. He could have played defensively from there but instead he continued to attack, birdieing 7 and 8 and knocking over the flagstick at 9, though he had to settle for par after misreading the putt.

After the round he said, “It makes me feel good because maybe a couple months ago I wouldn’t have been standing up here. I would have been going home. It’s nice to be able to fight back and [it] makes you feel good about yourself going into the weekend. … All of a sudden, I’m somewhat back in the tournament. I get off to a fast start tomorrow and I’m right there.”

This sounded like the Rory of old, who wore his confidence like a powerful cologne. One member of his inner circle expounded on the significance of these two days in Rochester: “He’s playing with his old freedom. You can just see it, there’s a different level of belief.”

If McIlroy can continue to build on this belief he will threaten the hegemony of the elder statesmen ahead of him in the World Ranking, Woods and Phil Mickelson. What makes this trio so compelling is what the blowhard newspaper publisher in The Wire liked to call the “Dickensian aspect,” which is to say, the human element in their struggles. All of the guys can make a golf ball dance. That’s not why we care about them so deeply. Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy are three of the most natural talents ever but offer wildly different templates on how to nurture genius.

For Woods, the selfishness and single-mindedness that made him so unbeatable metastasized into something that almost destroyed him. His ongoing quest for redemption may be the most riveting story in sports. The victories over the last couple of years have been swell, but nothing he’s done in the post-hydrant era resonated like last week’s victory stroll with his son Charlie in his arms. Wearing a matching red shirt, the little guy rested his head on his dad’s brawny shoulder, clinging for safety amidst cascading cheers. It was as touching an image as “The Hug” between Tiger and his father behind the final green at the 1997 Masters, and the river of tears he loosed when he won the British Open a decade later, shortly after Earl’s death. Because Woods has given so little of himself to the public, these glimpses of his inner-self are so precious.

Shortly after the turn of the century, when Tiger was enjoying a run of historic dominance, it was fashionable to make unflattering comparisons to Mickelson, who had been bestowed similar gifts but seemingly little of the same desire to be the best. But Phil always defined success in a very different way. His family was his priority, as was giving back through philanthropy and random acts of kindness. He wanted to win, of course, but doing the right thing was just as important to him. At this week’s PGA champions' dinner Mickelson sat at McIlroy’s table and spent most of the night whispering in his ear with avuncular advice. The most important choice he would make in his life, Mickelson told McIlroy, was whom he choose for a wife. The second biggest decision was settling on a caddie. Number three was finding the right agent. That these three positions have been unchanged for Mickelson since the start of his career goes a long way toward explaining his inner peace. If McIlroy can somehow marry Woods’s commitment to excellence with Mickelson’s determination to lead a life well lived, it will be a spectacular career and very fulfilling journey. This PGA may ultimately be remembered as an important step along the way.

Asked after the second round what keyed his comeback, McIlroy’s answer had nothing to do with golf. “Just being more positive,” he said. “It’s all about attitude more than anything else.”