ROCHESTER, N.Y. — "Sometimes I feel like I'm walking around out there and I'm unconscious."
"I'm really enjoying my golf."
"It's just so brain dead. Seriously, I feel like I've been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months."
"I feel like I'm in a good place."
Obviously two different people, right? One is lost, and the other is brimming with confidence. One is hopeless, and the other is on the edge of a breakthrough. One is Rory McIlroy, and the other is Rory McIlroy.
Wait a second.
The words from the sad, downtrodden Rory came following his opening-round 79 at Muirfield in the British Open. The strong, poised Rory spoke after his opening-round 69 Thursday at Oak Hill in the PGA Championship.
Three weeks and 10 strokes are the only obvious differences in the defending champ. That, and a haircut McIlroy received the past week that lopped off some, but not all, of his famous curly locks.
Sporting his new haircut and an even newer confidence, Rory McIlroy came to Oak Hill as the defending champion, but his game didn't show it. In his pre-tournament press conference, he said he watched videos of himself winning last year's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island to get an image of himself playing well. His main goal was strengthening his mental outlook between the ropes.
His determination to be happy was rewarded quickly — three birdies in the first four holes. He was holding follow-throughs for long moments after his swing. The bounce in his step had returned along with his game. To steal a characterization often directed at his fellow Nike affiliate, he looked like he was back.
"Overall, it was good," McIlroy said after finishing with a 1-under 69. "To shoot under par in the opening round of any major is a good start."
Since 2012, McIlroy is a combined 51-over in the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. He's a combined 14-under at the PGA Championship. Part of his success Thursday was his driver, even though he missed his last four fairways to close his round. He pulled it early and often. The shiny red club was used eight times — seven more than Tiger's — and allowed Rory to gouge his way to some pars that could turn into birdies over the weekend.
"I've always been inclined to get driver in my hand whenever I can," he said. "I was planning on hitting driver on 9, but it was downwind, so I hit three-wood. I feel I can get it close to the green on 12 and 14 and give myself a relatively simple shot. I'm probably hitting a few more drivers than the other guys, but my game plan hasn't changed."
Even though he acknowledged that the need to be long at Oak Hill is minimal, McIlroy obviously feels comfortable with the driver in his hand. And given his fragile nature the last time we saw him at a major, confidence is a premium.
"Today was definitely positive," McIlroy said. "I felt like I played really, really well. I thought through those first nine holes were really good. It's easier to be the Rory you're used to seeing when I'm playing well."
The Rory we're accustomed to seeing was on display on the first four holes this afternoon. That four more holes than we've seen all year.
"That's the next step," McIlroy said about his game returning to where it once was. "And I don't think that's too far off."