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McIlroy returns to Valhalla looking for another PGA Championship

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The last time Rory McIlroy arrived at Valhalla to play in the PGA Championship, he did so after winning his two previous starts. That was in 2014 when he'd captured the Open Championship and a World Golf Championship event. He'd go on to win that week, logging his fourth major.

Fast forward a decade and McIlroy is back at Valhalla, once again coming in following two wins and once again, looking to win a major, his fifth.

It’s been a long and, at times, frustrating decade since the 35-year-old last won one of golf's big four events. At that time, no one thought there would be such a long major-less dry spell from a player of his talent. Especially him.

Since that last major victory, McIlroy has played a major the week after winning a regular tournament seven times and managed to end up inside the top-10 on five occasions. But he’s still stuck at four major titles.

It’s not the longest gap between major wins. Four players – Henry Cotton, Julius Boros, Hale Irwin and Ben Crenshaw – waited 11 years. But McIlroy might be the highest-profile player to go on such a notable dry spell.

Now he’s back at a place where he’s enjoyed success, hoping to end the drought.

"The golf course is a little different than it was 10 years ago, a little longer," stated McIlroy at a brief press conference on Wednesday. "A couple little minor changes, but for the most part [it's] pretty much the same that I can remember from 10 years ago."

In 2014, McIlroy won by a shot over Phil Mickelson with his final hole being played in near darkness. He posted a four-round total of 16 under but doesn’t remember many of the details that led to his victory. What he does bring with him from that win is a similar confidence in how he's playing right now.

"Sometimes I struggle to remember what I did yesterday," he joked. :I think if I look that far back, it's hard to rekindle those feelings and those memories. I can vaguely remember coming here off the back of winning The Open and the old WGC at Akron. But you know, I think it's all about confidence and momentum, and I have a lot of confidence and quite a bit of momentum coming into this week."

McIlroy's current hot streak has been fueled in part by improved driving, something he chalked up to the new TaylorMade driver model he's been using. He called it the best he's had in several years and it's led him to sit on top of the PGA Tour's Total Driving statistical category which measures a combination of distance and accuracy. That means he won't be holding back when he pulls the driver from his bag.

"I've really gotten comfortable with the driver," he said, "and I think some of the technical things in my swing are just a little bit better, and the good drives are still very good, but the bad drives aren't as bad, so the misses aren't as wild."

He also gave credit for his recent success to improved wedge play, especially three-quarter shots, saying he's seeing them start off on the proper line. He's currently first on the PGA Tour in approach shots from 75 to 100 yards, averaging just nine feet, seven inches.

But the biggest improvement may be inside his head. He doesn't seem to be struggling with one part of his game as he has many times over the past decade. He's firing on all cylinders and confident with every club in the bag. That leads to a trust in his game and a sense that when he tees off on the first hole on Thursday, he won’t have to worry.

"I think this is a golf course that allows you to play with freedom because it's a big golf course,” he said of Valhalla. "The corridors are wide, not too dissimilar to last week at Quail Hollow, so you can open your shoulders up off the tee and try to take your chances from there."

Perhaps this will be the time that it all comes together for McIlroy, that he not only plays his best but none of the challengers plays better. Valhalla may just be the course that he can tame a second time and finally get his fifth major title.