CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rory McIlroy is excited to be back. Is he ready? That’s what we’ll find out this week at the Wells Fargo Championship.
The 18 holes McIlroy played in Wednesday’s pro-am here doubled the number of golf holes he’s played since his inglorious weekend at the Masters when he was paired with Jordan Spieth in a supposed Saturday showdown and shot 79.
If he’s going to hold up his end of the sputtering so-called Big Three (along with Jason Day and Spieth), McIlroy needs to get it in gear. The former world No. 1 from Northern Ireland, who turned 27 today, is in the right place to do that, however. He is the defending champion, he shot a 10-under-par 61 last year, he has won this tournament twice and he loves this golf course. He lost a playoff to Rickie Fowler in 2012. It’s the kind of place where Rory is in contention just standing on the first tee.
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But is he ready? Uh… check back in a few days. He took a break after Augusta, he said, to “recharge the batteries” and try to get his golf swing back in the groove. He wasn’t happy with his swing at the Masters and he’s been working on some technical things to improve it since then. It’s a work in progress.
“I’ve been working on the swing quite hard and it’s getting more comfortable,” he said.
He didn’t say, Oh, yeah, I’m ready, my swing is where I want it. Rory’s had a disappointing year where he’s been in position to win but let a few tournaments slip away with bad weekend performances. He shot 75 in the final round at the Northern Trust Championship at Riviera and finished 20th, was third at the Cadillac Championship with a disappointing Sunday 74 and had that unpleasant 79 at the Masters.
This is not the Rory we’re used to, the guy who won four majors in a few blinks of an eye and quickly rose to No. 1, a position we expected him to hold in perpetuity. Instead, he is No. 3.
There are courses for horses, especially in golf, and this is a track for McIlroy. He’s counting on that. He won here in 2010 to start the PGA Tour portion of his career.
“Being so comfortable here and with the great memories I have, it all adds up to a really enjoyable week and week where I feel I can play well and very strongly have a chance to contend again,” he said.
The fact that the Quail Hollow golf course has been soaked with rain, including another pelting late Tuesday afternoon, only plays into McIlroy’s wheelhouse. He’s a big hitter, ranked 13th in driving distance, and the course is playing long.
“I hit 5-wood into par 4s three times,” Rickie Fowler said Wednesday afternoon. “Length will be a little bit more of a premium this year. With Rory, the weeks where he is driving it well, he’s always in contention, if not winning. So if he drives the ball this week, he’s going to play well here, as he’s done multiple times. He’s had a very good record here with two wins. Luckily, I kept him from a third. I know he feels comfortable around here. I expect him to play well again this week.”
McIlroy suggests it is even simpler than that. He likes the fairness of the course.
“You hit good shots here, you get rewarded,” McIlroy said. “You don’t hit good shots, you’re going to struggle. Remembering the great shots that I’ve hit on some holes, the great putts that I’ve holed when I needed too… Yeah, when I go out on the course, I feel like I have to play pretty badly not to shoot a decent score. I know my way around it.”
Those feelings of comfort could come in handy because McIlroy needs to get this season going and start racking up wins. That’s what his resume says he’s supposed to be doing and he’s frustrated that he’s not.
At the same time, you can see him turning into a golfing financial empire. When he was asked about his plans for the British Open at Royal Troon, he excitedly noted that Troon was only a 20-minute helicopter ride from his Northern Ireland home so he was pleased to get a week at home for a major.
Commuting by helicopter? That’s straight out of the Greg Norman playbook.
Somewhat surprisingly, McIlroy hasn’t played at any of this year’s major championship courses. He’ll visit Oakmont for a few days after the Memorial Tournament, he’ll check out Troon the week before. The PGA Championship is at Baltusrol but McIlroy won’t get there until Sunday before the tournament because the day before he’s got a friend’s wedding to attend in Charlotte. He hasn’t scouted PGA sites early in the past anyway, he noted, because the Bridgestone Invitational has been held the week before the PGA so he couldn’t. He didn’t have to add that he won PGA Championships at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island and Valhalla.
This is the start of a uniquely busy season of golf for everyone, due to the Olympics being dropped into the schedule in August.
“One reason I took three weeks off after Augusta is that I’m not going to have more than one week off until after the Ryder Cup,” McIlroy said.
After the Wells Fargo, McIlroy will play the Players and the Irish Open, take a week off; then it’s the Memorial, week off; U.S. Open, week off; French Open, week off; British Open, week off; PGA, week off; Olympics, week off; FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup.
“You can’t play every week,” he said. “It’s a busy summer but I’m looking forward to all the opportunities. It might be a little bit tough going from Europe to the States and then going to Brazil and back again but that’s why I’ve given myself a week to sort of recover from each of those tournaments.”
A handful of players have chosen to skip the Olympics in Brazil, including Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, but McIlroy remains committed to it. One reason, he said, is that if golf isn’t a commercial success, the Olympics may drop it as a sport after Rio this year and Tokyo in 2020.
“I’m not sure if we’re going to have another opportunity to win a gold medal after that,” McIlroy said.
He is also doing it in part because of his friendship with Paul McGinley, who is captain of the Irish golf Olympic team. “He’s more into it than I am, quite honestly, but I would feel like I’m not only letting him down, I’d let down the whole country as well,” McIlroy said. “So that’s why I want to give it my best shot.
“You go play four rounds really competitively and try to win a gold medal. And if you do, I don’t know how that will stack up against the other things that I’ve done in my career but maybe I might look back in 20 years time and a gold medal might be one of my crowning achievements, you never know. So it’s an opportunity to do something that you’ve never done before. If nothing else, it will be a great experience.”