PITTSFORD — Rory McIlroy loves proving people wrong.
Good thing, because at the present time, he’s got a lot of work ahead of him in that regard.
Seemingly everything about the 24-year-old Northern Irishman has been picked apart in the last ninth months. His equipment change (from Titleist to Nike), his high-profile relationship (to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki) and his work ethic (CBS announcer Nick Faldo said last month McIlory, in essence, needed to practice more) have all been mentioned as reasons the former No. 1 player in the world has looked nothing like the freckled-faced kid who won two majors by a combined 16 strokes in the last two years.
McIlroy himself called his game “brain dead” during last month’s Open Championship. But the reason for his struggles inside the ropes has nothing to do with what’s going on outside of them, he insisted Wednesday at a news conference on the eve of the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club.
“I just haven’t been swinging it the best this year,” McIlroy said, offering a reason any 30-handicapper at Audubon could understand. “I got into a couple bad habits with my golf swing, and it’s just taken me a little bit longer to get out of them. Obviously when you’re fighting that so much, it’s hard to play the golf that I want to play.”
That golf catapulted him to No. 1 in the world and a record-setting victory in the 2012 PGA Championship, which he won by eight strokes at Kiawah Island to break the tournament record of seven set here by Jack Nicklaus in 1980.
In an effort to regain that form, McIlroy’s been watching highlights from that tournament, along with some of his other best weeks on tour. The reason for that, he said, is two-fold.
It allows him to analyze the technical aspects of his swing, and also serves as a reminder of how he oozes confidence when he’s going well.
“It’s body language. It’s how you carry yourself. It’s all that sort of stuff,” he said. “I think everyone sees when I walk and I’m playing well, I have that little bounce in my step. So just trying to get that going again and trying to get that positive energy back.”
McIlroy sounded in the right frame of mind Wednesday. He said he’s as confident as he’s been all year, and enjoyed hosting the champion’s dinner (goat cheese and beet root salad, Irish tenderloin, sticky toffee pudding) earlier in the week.
“For me this week, I’m feeling good,” he said.
The down year so far has taught McIlroy two big lessons.
“There’s been times where I’ve thought about my swing a little bit too much, and that’s prevented me from playing the way I want to play, which is that care-free, free-flowing game that I usually have,” he said. “Just not get too down on myself — that’s the thing.”
McIlroy also said that he should have played more golf at the start of the season.
“I didn’t play and I needed to get into a run of events,” he said. “That’s something I should have done differently.”
Six of McIlroy’s tournaments have been the three majors and three World Golf Championship events this year. He’s played in six PGA Tour events and three European Tour events, for a total of 15 global events.
He ranks 33rd in scoring average at 70.322 and is 143rd in driving accuracy, at just 57.69 percent — a stat that could be particularly troubling at tree-lined Oak Hill.
“I think they have set the golf course up fantastically well,” he said. “It’s not an overly long golf course, but you have to be really precise. You’ve got to hit fairways to give yourself chances going into the greens.”
He hasn’t done enough of that in his last five starts, failing to break par in all of them, and shooting a combined 36-over.
That’s given the British tabloids plenty of fodder. After his opening-round 79 at Muirfield last month, the headlines screamed “Brainless” and “I Need A Shrink.”
“Give him a break,” said Englishman Ian Poulter, one of golf’s more colorful quotes. “I think sometimes we forget how young he is and what he’s been able to achieve at a very early age. So the second he feels comfortable again, whether that’s with his swing or equipment or whatever it is, then, you know, Rory will be winning golf tournaments. That natural swing of his doesn’t just disappear overnight.”
McIlroy was later asked whether he agreed with Poulter’s comments.
“Should you lay off me? That’s not for me to decide,” he said. “It would be nicer just to sit up here, talk about some more positive things, but the way this year’s gone, it’s understandable why I’m not.”
One thing that can be ruled out as the source of his troubles, McIlroy said, is his equipment change.
“I think it was a valid point at the start of the year. I don’t think it’s a valid point now,” he said. “I mean, it’s nine months in. Of course there’s going to be a transition period where you’ve got to get used to a few different things. … I’m really happy with everything that I’ve got in my bag.”
McIlroy’s slump has dropped him to third in the world, behind American stars Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. They have dominated much of the conversation this week, leaving McIlroy to go about his business in relative peace.
“I don’t need any extra motivation to go out and try and play well,” he said. “I want to try and be the best golfer in the world, and I don’t need any extra motivation than that.”