Rory McIlroy brimming with confidence as he heads into pre-Masters break

Rory McIlroy brimming with confidence as he heads into pre-Masters break

Rory McIlroy finished third on Sunday.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

DORAL, Fla.—After signing for a 67 on Sunday, good enough for third place at the Cadillac Championship, Rory McIlroy did what most of the top players do. He gave a couple of interviews. He signed some autographs for the hoards of people shouting his name. And then he was gone.

Just like that, after weeks of being in the spotlight, it was the last we’ll see of the No. 1 golfer in the world until the Masters. McIlroy is taking the next three weeks off to recharge and prepare for the first major of the season. He’ll return to Augusta a much different player than the one who limped away after a final-round 80 a year ago.

For starters, McIlroy is the reigning U.S. Open champion. Perhaps just as important, McIlroy has realized that he can stay in contention and win when he’s not at his best. It’s a trait all the great ones had. Right now, McIlroy has it.

“That’s been the biggest improvement in my game, is being able to turn those 71s and 72s into 69s or 68s and keep yourself in the tournament,” McIlroy said after recording his 11th top-five finish in his last 12 starts. “That’s been the biggest improvement in my game in the last six months, and it’s been the reason why I’ve been up there so much.”

McIlroy took over the No. 1 ranking with his win over Tiger Woods at the Honda Classic. He opened with rounds of 73-69 at the Cadillac Championship and complained of being mentally “flat.” It would have been easy to give McIlroy a hall pass this week, but like a certain former No. 1 before him, McIlroy didn’t settle for a mediocre weekend.

“There was no thoughts of me relaxing this week or thinking that my job’s done,” he said. “I know better than that, and I know I still have to keep working hard and giving it 100 percent.”

On Saturday, McIlroy exploded with seven birdies and an eagle through 12 holes, and he admitted he had visions of a 59 dancing through his head. But two late bogeys ended his magical run, and he settled for a “disappointing” seven-under 65.

Starting the final round eight shots back, McIlroy got off to another hot start, with four birdies in the first 10 holes. Then on the par-5 12th, he found a greenside bunker on his second shot. McIlroy blasted out and ran up the hill just in time to watch his ball fall into the hole for an eagle.

Suddenly, he was one shot off the lead.

But McIlroy ran into trouble on the 460-yard, par-4 14th, a hole that gave him trouble all week. He pulled his tee shot into the left rough and advanced his second to the front of the green. After a poor chip, McIlroy left himself more than 16 feet for par and missed. It was his third bogey on the 14th this week.

McIlroy birdied the par-4 16th, and he had a chance to post -15 with a par at the brutal 18th, but he couldn’t get up-and-down from the right greenside rough.

“I’ll look back on it tomorrow and look back at what a good week it was, and at least starting the day eight shots behind even to just give myself a chance to win was a pretty good effort,” he said. “I just couldn’t close it out the way I wanted to.”

When asked on Saturday if it was important to have a good final round before his Masters break, McIlroy said it wasn’t.

“I'd love to post a good finish going into the Masters, but between [Sunday] and the Masters, I have three weeks. So it doesn't really matter,” he said.

Who knows if McIlroy changed his mind after his third-place finish, but it certainly didn’t do anything to shake his mile-high confidence. And, as McIlroy said after his round, confidence “can do massive things for your game.”

“Even if you’re not playing that great, if you still have confidence in yourself, it makes a big difference,” he said.

There’s no doubt after his torrid run to become the second-youngest player to reach No. 1 that McIlroy will have plenty of confidence when he reappears at Augusta National.