By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Ten days after withdrawing from The Honda Classic, a day after his best round of the year at Doral and a few weeks before teeing it up at the Shell Houston Open after seeing his friend Tiger Woods vault past him to No. 1 in the world, Rory McIlroy was at PGA National. Silence mostly swept across the golf course, except for the occasional hammer or saw as various grandstands were disassembled.
It was an eerie feeling for McIlroy given the noise surrounding his last appearance at the course. This time, he was on hand for the Els for Autism tournament, an annual outing to benefit Ernie Els’ foundation to find a cure for autism, which afflicts his son Ben.
In between participating in the event -- where McIlroy played with Rudy Giuliani, Rush Limbaugh and Marvin Shanken -- and picking up his 2012 Player of the Year and Vardon Trophy awards, McIlroy sat down for an exclusive Q&A with PGATOUR.COM. He talked open and honestly about his withdrawal from The Honda Classic, how the last few months have been a struggle, his relationship with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, his tennis-playing girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and more.
PGATOUR.COM: You addressed some of this at Doral, but how tough have the last couple of months been on you with all the scrutiny and pressure from the Nike contract, being No. 1 in the world and all of a sudden being thrust into a sort of higher profile?
McILROY: It's been tough. It's sort of the second time I've had to go through it in the past sort of 12 months. But you know, it is part and parcel of where I'm at in the game. I guess it would be nice if I didn't have to go through it, if everything was just sort of even keel, but I guess that's what attracts me to people is these sort of ups and downs that I go through. It's OK. I always think my game is further away than what it is. When I have a bad day or a bad week, I feel like, ‘How did I ever play well?’ and when you play well, you think, ‘How did I ever play badly?’ It's just the way my game is. But I'm working on it and I'm working hard, and I'm starting to see some good results, good shots, and days like (Sunday at Doral in which he shot a season-low 65) obviously give me a lot of confidence.
PGATOUR.COM: A 65 can go a long way, can’t it?
McILROY: Yeah, especially in those conditions, bogey-free and getting. To get a top 10 and sort of give myself that little boost was nice.
PGATOUR.COM: Luke Donald, who got to No. 1 in the world last year, told me attention can be a distraction. Has it been tough for you to block out everything that’s written or said about you?
McILROY: Yeah, for sure. I have started to do a better job of that, of not reading as much and not watching TV, because you can get caught up in it. I haven't read anything over the last sort of two weeks after The Honda Classic. I made a conscious decision to do that just because it doesn't do me any good reading it because I already know what I've done and I know what I've said, so there's no point in reading about it again.
PGATOUR.COM: What's the biggest thing you've learned from all this -- since The Honda Classic, since the Nike announcement, since the end of last year?
McILROY: I don't think I'll ever go through a period like that again in my career with everything that was going on. Now that that's gone, it's out of the way, I can just concentrate on the golf. And what I learned is you have to just stay the same player and the same person and not get caught up in the hype and the excitement and all the stuff that goes on around it. That's something I'm trying to do a little bit better with and not read as much. I’m trying to immerse myself in my own little world, and if I can do that, then that sort of blocks everything else out.
PGATOUR.COM: You're a pretty quick learner that way. Going back to the 2011 Masters, you shoot 80, figure out what went wrong, then win the U.S. Open two months later. You have a string of missed cuts last summer after admittedly “taking your eye off the ball,” as you said, then come back and win the PGA Championship. You withdrew from The Honda, came back the next week and apologized. Where does that come from in you?
McILROY: I guess you learn from your mistakes. I think people have to make mistakes. Michael Jordan says he failed and failed again and that’s why he succeeded because from every failure that you have or every mistake that you make, you learn from it and you move on and you try to make sure that you don't do it again.
PGATOUR.COM: Children’s charities are very important to you -- you have another trip to Haiti, you have your own foundation now and the 6 Bags Project. What got you involved here with Ernie Els and the Els for Autism event?
McILROY: Ernie asked me to do it last year, and I couldn't, so I said I'll make sure that I'm here this year. I’ve gotten to know Ernie and Liezl and the Els family, and I've met their son Ben a few times. They're so involved, and they want to get the message out there and they want to create awareness, and I think what they're doing here by trying to build this autism school it's a great cause. They're doing it because autism has touched their lives, but they want to be able to help so many kids that have it, too.
PGATOUR.COM: What is it about helping these kids, whether it’s with the Els event, or your own work, that resonates with you?
McILROY: I'm still at an age where I can relate to them in some way I feel, and any sort of kids' charities that I can try and help out, I will. I played in The Jake a couple weeks ago at the Bear's Club for the Nicklauses, and it's just nice to be able to do something that helps. They auctioned off four-balls at The Jake, and I think they raised over $100,000 for my four-ball. So it's nice to be able to do something like that.
PGATOUR.COM: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are two guys you’ve also befriended. What have those relationships meant to you? How has it helped you?
McILROY: It's been good just to run into Jack now and again at the Bear's Club and sit and have lunch with him. At the start it was more of a student-teacher relationship but now it’s not that at all. He tells me stories from his day and it's all very interesting to me. He's so much into not making mistakes. He said he three-putted at Pebble Beach at the 18th one year, 1960, or whatever it was. Well, he vowed never to three-putt again. He says that's the deadliest sin in golf is three-putting. There's a lot of stuff like that, little things you can pick up along the way. And Tiger is good that way as well. He actually texted me last night.
PGATOUR.COM: What did he say?
McILROY: He said I was wearing a purple golf shirt with a big swoosh on it Sunday at Doral -- and he said, ‘Could you wear any bigger swoosh on your chest?’ I said, ‘Well, it sort of worked. I might have to do it more often.’
PGATOUR.COM: You’re practically neighbors now with Tiger and Jack now that you live here. Any big plans for your new house?
McILROY: Actually there's a vacant lot next to it, which I bought as well. I'm deciding what to do with it at the minute. There's probably going to be a tennis court put in there.
PGATOUR.COM: Your girlfriend Caroline (Wozniacki’s) influence?
McILROY: A little bit. A lot, actually. So it's going to be that and maybe like a building just for a gym and a pool and stuff like that.
PGATOUR.COM: No golf or short game area, like your old house in Northern Ireland?
McILROY: There's a little astroturf putting green in the backyard, but I’m 5 minutes from the Bear’s Club. I want to get away from golf when I'm at home anyway.
PGATOUR.COM: Being two globetrotting superstars, has that made it tough to see Caroline?
McILROY: Yeah, it is tough. I think anyone in their relationship when they travel a lot and don't see each other for quite long periods, it's difficult. A lot of time on the phone, a lot of time on Skype, just trying to catch up with each other as much as you can, trying to make it work as best we can because we both really want to.
PGATOUR.COM: Will she be at the Masters with you?
McILROY: Yeah, she's playing in Charleston (S.C.) the week before, so it's not a long trip from there. She doesn't have a tournament that week, so it just depends if she feels like she can take the week off. I hope she comes up.
PGATOUR.COM: Has she been up there with you yet?
McILROY: No. She was planning on coming last year, but she had to go back to Europe and do a few commercial things. It would be nice to get her in a boiler suit and get her to caddie in the par 3 contest.
PGATOUR.COM: Speaking of the Masters, what would a green jacket mean to you? Especially after coming so close a couple of years ago.
McILROY: It would mean everything. I'm halfway to the career Grand Slam and that's one of the pieces of the puzzle. The Open Championship is the other. That's a big goal for me is to try to win more major championships. I feel like I'm at a stage now where, sure I want to win other tournaments, but the majors are the focus.