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Lynch: Past PGA champ Rory McIlroy returns to Kiawah a different man, one boosted by confidence and fatherhood

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Things were more benign the last time Rory McIlroy was in the 18th fairway at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. It was the final round of the 94th PGA Championship, he had a seven-stroke lead, and an 8-iron for his approach shot (He made birdie to win by eight). During a Tuesday practice round for the 103rd edition of this major, McIlroy stood in the same fairway debating his club selection on the 505-yard par 4.

The green was 223 yards away and he faced a stiff headwind. He pulled a 3-iron.

“That’s not getting there,” said his caddie, Harry Diamond.

McIlroy normally flies his 3-iron 240 yards. He returned it to the bag and opted for a 5-wood. One ripped draw later, his ball finished 20 feet from the pin.

“Pulling off a head-cover on a par-4 was a bit of a blow to my ego,” he said with a laugh.

There will be no shortage of bruised egos this week on Pete Dye’s Ocean Course, a demanding test even without the winds that typically rake the property. Its victims might eventually include the two-time former champion, but McIlroy arrived at Kiawah Island armed with two weapons that have been absent of late: confidence and a cooperative putter.

Two weeks ago, he won his 19th PGA Tour title in Charlotte, during which he didn’t miss a putt inside of 6 feet. There’s legacy confidence too in that eight-shot canter in 2012, the only other major contested here. But McIlroy dismissed the idea—mooted by Nick Faldo—that he is a defending champion of sorts.

“I think I finished tied 32nd last year in this tournament, so no, I don’t feel like that at all,” said the man who actually finished T-33 at TPC Harding Park last summer.

The 2021 PGA Championship is notably dissimilar to the ’20 edition, not least in that it is being held on its scheduled dates and with spectators. Even more has changed since McIlroy’s win nine years ago. He’s now 32, a husband and father, and seven years removed from the last of his four major wins. “I’m in a completely different place in my life,” he said. “Yeah, I feel like a completely different person. A lot has changed for the better. I’m standing up here probably more confident in myself, happier with where I am in my life, and just sort of enjoying everything, enjoying life, enjoying everything a bit more. Yeah, it’s all good.”

Rory McIlroy poses with the winner’s trophy with his wife Erica and daughter Poppy at the Wells Fargo Championship. (Photo: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

McIlroy’s victory at Quail Hollow snapped a desultory stretch dating back to the PGA Tour’s resumption last June after the pandemic lockdown, since which he had remained winless and missed cuts at both the Masters and the Players Championship. His swing out of sync, he began working at the Players with Pete Cowen, a renowned English instructor he has known for years. The partnership bore fruit quicker than even McIlroy might have predicted.

“When you’re in the thick of it, it always seems further away than it is,” he said of his struggles. “I guess the big thing that I was really encouraged with at Quail Hollow is it’s my first time really getting myself into contention in a while, and to have those thoughts and movements sort of hold up under that pressure, trying to win a golf tournament, coming down some really tough holes. That’s what I was really pleased with.”

That win in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow came in front of spectators, limited numbers of whom have slowly returned to professional golf. There are 10,000 or so on site daily at Kiawah Island, and that too is a boon for McIlroy, who admitted to struggling in the vacuum of playing without fans for the first time since his teenage days. He’s even happy to hear the loudmouth boors who were so long an irritant for Tour players.

“Love the mashed potatoes guys again,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t even care about the stupid comments. I’m just glad that everyone is back here.”

For the first time in what seems like forever at a major championship, McIlroy sounds like a man who thinks he might be able to give them something to cheer about Sunday. Because nothing rolls back the years like confidence and a hot putter.

original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/05/18/pga-championship-rory-mcilroy-kiawah-island-confidence-fatherhood/

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