When he stepped to the tee for the last 18 holes of the Players Championship, Rory McIlroy knew the stats about his Sunday swoons and the number of times he was unable to close in the final round.
He knew that he had been second or tied for second heading to the final day on seven occasions since 2018 and never won. He knew he’d played in the final group nine times without getting a win.
But it never got to him. He was able to brush away all the noise as if he was tapping in an uphill one-footer.
On Sunday, he ended his year-long victory drought by finishing on top of a wildly fluctuating leaderboard on an exceptionally difficult TPC Sawgrass course made tougher by cool, wet weather, to capture his 15th PGA Tour title and first in a year.
It wasn’t thanks to a swing change or the work he’s put in on his putting. It had nothing to do with his time in the gym or his diet. No, the reason McIlroy has been playing golf as well as anyone in the world this year is thanks to an attitude adjustment.
“I think it's been having a focus over the last six or seven months on my attitude,” stated McIlroy, “especially my attitude to golf, and not letting golf define who I am as a person, trying to keep the two things very separate, because one thing that I used to do in the past is I'd shoot – I'd let what I shot that day influence who I was or my mood or – and to try and keep those two things very separate is something I've worked hard on because who I am as a person isn't who I am as a golfer, and it took me a while to get to that point where I realized who those two people were.”
While the change hasn’t necessarily resulted in a flurry of wins, it has allowed McIlroy to become the most consistent golfer in the world. He’s a combined 80 under par over his last 24 rounds. His worst finish in six starts this year is a tie for sixth, which came a week ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
That was another of those events where the 29-year-old teed it up on the last day in the last group only to watch someone else raise the trophy. That didn’t bother him; in fact he was quite content about his tie for sixth.
“I've been disciplined this year in not reading a lot of stuff about myself,” he stated, “so that has helped because I haven't read any of the negativity or anything that – and obviously I know that it's going to happen because of who I am and what I've done in the past or whatever, but I really have left each tournament happy.”
On Sunday, McIlroy started slowly, making a pedestrian par on the scoreable par-5 second and then an ugly double-bogey on the fourth hole by hitting a wedge into the water.
It might have been easy to allow his game to fly off the rails. Instead, he remained calm, enjoyed his walk along the Pete Dye course on a raw day and relished his chances that lay ahead.
He traded a birdie and a bogey on the sixth and seventh holes, and then rattled off five birdies over an eight-hole stretch starting at the ninth. The last of those on the 16th, put him into the lead with two of the most diabolical holes left.
“I kept telling myself on the way to the 17th tee, just make three more good swings,” he said. “That's all you need to do, make a good swing here, two good swings at the last, and this thing is yours, and to step up and make those three good swings, it's very satisfying knowing that it's in there when it needs to be.”
Just as McIlroy didn’t let all the final-group failures define him, he said the victory is just another step in his career, one that is showing signs of maturity. It’s another day in what he hopes will be a long career that will play out over the next decade or so.
That career has seen him grow and transform from a teenage phenom into a man with awareness of his talents but also the world around him.
When he first came to the Players Championship in 2009 as a 19-year-old, he said, he missed the cut and spent the weekend getting kicked out of bars in the party area of Jacksonville Beach for being under age.
“I came on tour and all I wanted to do was keep my card,” he said, “and from there, you grow and you learn and you become a better player, and you realize that there's a lot more that you can achieve.
“I think all the experience that I've racked up over those first 10 or 11 years means that I'm way more prepared for these next 10, and if you're more prepared, hopefully that means you can have more success.”
McIlroy will now try to slay another dragon that he’s been wrestling with for some time, that being completing the career grand slam with a win at the Masters. His title at the Players made him the betting favourite in Augusta.
If he continues to strike the ball as he has this year, there’s a very good chance he will be wearing a Green Jacket in April.