LOUISVILLE, KY — Rory McIlroy said golf was pining for someone to raise his hand and dominate the sport. With six top-10 finishes to start the year, he inched his way to the front of the line while Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer kept the top spot warm with moments of greatness.
Now, though, McIlroy has jumped the line. With his wire-to-wire British Open win, followed by a second victory in as many starts at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone, he moved ahead of Kaymer and Watson, blew by Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth, left Phil Mickelson in the dust and pried Tiger Woods’ hands off the throne.
Welcome to the Rory McIlroy era — just don’t describe it that way to the man himself.
“I’ve heard it and I’ve read it,” McIlroy said at his Tuesday press conference at Valhalla, site of this week’s PGA Championship. “Sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump on the bandwagon of certain things. I’m not necessarily sure you can call this an era or the start of an era, but I’m really happy where my golf game is at the minute, and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible.”
With a win this week at Valhalla, McIlroy would be the first player to win back-to-back majors since Padraig Harrington took the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008. A fourth major title would put McIlroy, 25, even with Ray Floyd’s career total and one behind Mickelson and Byron Nelson.
“People can say what they want to say, that’s fine,” McIlroy said. “But I can’t read too much in it. I just need to practice hard and play well, and if I do that, that’s all I can do and try not to read too much of the stuff that’s being written. Because if you read everything that was being written, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.”
On Tuesday, Golf Channel set up its Protracer (which tracks ball flight) behind McIlroy on the driving range. With a crowd of spectators behind him, McIlroy pounded drive after drive, each one resulting in the straightest red line possible from his clubface to the end of the fairway.
With his length and accuracy, he’s playing a different course than most of his competitors, turning tracks into par-68s. McIlroy says he has added three kilograms (almost seven pounds) of muscle in the last two months, resulting in his heaviest playing weight and some of his longest drives.
“I’m definitely hitting it longer over the past couple of years,” he said. “I’ve always had the speed and power, but I haven’t really had the strength or stability. Does that mean I want to get heavier and try to put on more distance? I mean — I don’t feel like I need to put on any more distance.”
He’s right. He’s third on Tour in driving distance. He led the field in that category at the Bridgestone, averaging 335 yards per drive. Said Sergio Garcia, his playing partner in at Firestone on Sunday, “Everybody saw it. He played very, very well. He drove the ball miles and very, very straight for the most part. He gave himself a lot of birdie looks.”
For the first two rounds of the PGA Championship, McIlroy will be paired with Watson, who is No. 1 in driving distance. Though McIlroy has something Watson doesn’t always have control of: the mental game.
“What’s going through my head when I approach each shot is just that shot,” McIlroy said. “That’s what I feel when I’m mentally at my best on the golf course. It’s approaching every shot as if that’s the only shot you’re going to play that day, putting everything into that and not getting ahead of yourself by thinking about your score or where you are in the tournament.
“When you talk about my game being in a certain zone, mentally I’m in a good place on the course, and I’m staying in the present. That’s really why you’re seeing the sort of golf that I’m playing over the past few weeks.”
Having regained the No. 1 ranking at Firestone, McIlroy is the best the game has to offer both nominally and otherwise. And there’s every chance he will further separate himself from the pack at Valhalla.
McIlroy has raised his hand.