Rory McIlroy’s bounce is back. It comes and goes, but it’s unmissable when you see it up close. He hopped in and out of the media center on Wednesday at the WM Phoenix Open like the Easter bunny, crossing paths on his way out with one of the men who can overtake him for World No. 1 this week, Scottie Scheffler, and exchanging compliments over each others sweaters. Just a couple of (Nike) guys being dudes.
Of course the bounce is back. The Northern Irishman has won three times in his last eight starts on the PGA and DP World Tours, and in the other five events he’s finished inside the top eight each time. We don’t want to jinx it, but he’s wading into 2014 territory, the year he won two of the four majors, plus a WGC and one of the former European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. The scary part is, he believes at age 33 he might be better right now.
“Who knows whenever you’ve peaked or not peaked,” McIlroy said. “I’m guilty of looking back to 2014 and thinking about how I played then and are there certain things from that time in my career I’d want to put into my own career at the minute. But when I look at everything and I look at the statistical categories, I said at the start of this press conference, I don’t feel like I’ve ever been as complete of a player as I am right now.”
The numbers prove it. While he hasn’t played enough to rank in the major statistical categories for the new season, if you go back to last season McIlroy finished first on the PGA Tour in total strokes gained, first in scoring average (68.67), second in SG/tee-to-green, third in SG/off-the-tee, top 16 in SG/approach and putting, 43rd in SG/around-the-green, and, perhaps most importantly, second in final-round scoring average (68.07). The 2013-14 numbers in the ball-striking categories were just as good, but his 41st ranking in putting and 93rd around-the-green might be why he feels more “complete” now.
Being ranked World No. 1 title helps, too. It’s a label McIlroy does not seemed prepared to give up despite the number of dizzying scenarios that could lead to him losing it on Sunday evening. When asked if he feels like the best player in the world at this moment, there was little hesitation in his short, simple answer.
“Yes,” McIlroy said, to which one reporter replied “why is that?”
“Because I do,” he added.
OK then. Of course, McIlroy did elaborate further after a mic-drop-style pause.
“I feel like consistency-wise, I’ve been as good as I have been ever in my career,” he said. “I think the results speak for themselves, as well, over not just the past six months but really the past 18 months post-Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, I feel like I’ve been on a really good run of form since then.”
Right around this time last year, McIlroy had mentioned that his goals had become more process-oriented: Hit more fairways. Chip and putt better. Get his iron play back to the level it once was in his so-called “prime.” Take care of all that stuff like he has, and the wins will come. Those goals remain the same for 2023.
“I don’t think I need to fix what’s working pretty well,” McIlroy said. “Again, I can sit here and say I want to win six times this year and I want to win the Masters and I want to win whatever. It’s like, of course everyone wants to do that. But what helps me get to that point?
“For me there’s certain areas of my game that I know if I can keep as strong and as sharp as possible, it’ll help me achieve those goals. Look, those goals are outcome goals, and that’s great, but what do you have to put in to give yourself a chance at those outcomes, and that’s the important thing.”
Equally important is getting it done without your best stuff, something McIlroy did in his most-recent start at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic, which he won by one stroke over Patrick Reed. That’s something he’s still learning how to do despite being in his 15th year as a professional. It’s something a certain someone used to do multiple times a season.
“I think I said afterwards, it’s one of the things that made Tiger stand out all those years is he was able to win golf tournaments when he wasn’t at his best,” McIlroy said. “Look, I’m not comparing myself for one minute to Tiger Woods, but if I can get better at sort of piecing it together and not getting … not wanting to play perfect golf to win golf tournaments. I didn’t react to bad shots, I sort of had a two-way miss off the tee, there was a bunch of stuff going on. But I was just able to put that behind me and really win with my short game and my putting and my ability just to manage my game.”
Best stuff, worst stuff, whatever McIlroy is working with right now, it’s leading to victories. And it’s brought back the bounce.