Carefree mentality behind McIlroy's comeback

LONDON • There must be something in the tuna wontons at Tiger Woods' restaurant.

No sooner had the owner defied logic to make his stellar comeback after spinal fusion surgery, Rory McIlroy, a Wednesday-night regular, was ending his 18-month PGA Tour title drought.

An unlikely date at Augusta's top table now beckons. If Woods is having to find a new way to play after his staccato appearances and four back operations, so too has McIlroy, who appears to have undergone a radical mental reboot.

"I'm trying to get back to feeling how I did as a kid," the Northern Irishman said after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill on Sunday.

He said he wanted to play with "instinct" and "freedom" and then, in a confessional moment, concluded: "It's the mentality of not really caring whether it goes in or not."

That was a fascinating comment from a man winding down the days until his latest attempt to complete the career grand slam at the Masters on April 5-8.

MENTAL LIBERATION

I'm trying to get back to feeling how I did as a kid. It's the mentality of not really caring whether it goes in or not.

RORY MCILROY, on the change of attitude that shaped his victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last Sunday.

The long-awaited win also raises questions about his back-up team.

Putting guru Phil Kenyon, who had eight players at the last Ryder Cup, has been helping McIlroy since the 2016 PGA Championship.

His methods have become a buzz in golf - he says there is no one-size-fits-all solution but measures kinematics with his SAM PuttLab, a putt analysis and training system, and spin with Quintic Ball Roll, another putting analysis software.

It seems very state-of-the-art for a man trying to play like a kid on instinct; McIlroy said he had not played with such feelings since 2014.

A session with Brad Faxon, a TV pundit and eight-time PGA Tour winner, is being credited for his form at Bay Hill.

"He freed my head more than my stroke," McIlroy said. "I felt like I was complicating things a bit and thinking a bit too much about it, and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts."

The four-time Major winner has traditionally been a streaky putter with the body language to match.

And like Woods, McIlroy has suffered physically as well as mentally during his slump.

A long-standing rib injury transferred to his back and left him suffering post-round spasms last year. It is, then, unsurprising if he wants to roll back the years and not be paralysed by golf analytics.

If the putting remains reliable then his chances of challenging at Augusta will be real.

Asked about seeing Woods return so well, McIlroy made an aside about The Woods, his restaurant in Jupiter, Florida.

"I go to his restaurant a lot actually," he said. "It's a Wednesday thing for us... the food is good... tuna wontons are good."

After a 539-day famine without a win, McIlroy, who is seeded sixth as the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play gets under way today, will hope for a feast. The starters have been good. Now for the main course.

THE TIMES, LONDON

WGC MATCHPLAY

Day 1: StarHub Ch204, tomorrow, 2am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2018, with the headline 'Carefree mentality behind McIlroy's comeback'. Print Edition | Subscribe