The Honda Classic is where Rory McIlroy reached No. 1 in the world for the first time, after winning in 2012. It’s also where he experienced what he called his lowest moment a year later when he walked off the golf course in the middle of his second round, eventually citing a toothache and mental fatigue. Much of course has changed for McIlroy in the months since -- among them being that his game is trending the right direction again.
In an interview with PGATOUR.COM’s Brian Wacker, McIlroy opened up about what went wrong in 2013, what he has learned and how he was able to get back on track.
PGATOUR.COM: If you were being honest with yourself in grading your season last year, what would you give yourself and why?
RORY McILROY: Perhaps 7 out of 10. Many things of course could’ve been better but I think I’ve worked through most of the necessary changes with my clubs and my swing. And 2013 ended on a much more positive note.
PGATOUR.COM: What was your lowest point of 2013?
McILROY: Probably The Honda back (last) February. I made a mistake walking off the course and disappointed not just myself. Golf can be a frustrating game and emotionally tough. What’s important, though, is that I’ve learned from that episode. I need to stay patient and play my way through the difficult patches.
PGATOUR.COM: The single-biggest thing you learned from those struggles was … ?
McILROY: The ability to pick myself up after disappointment. I had to mature, and I did. And through the lean times it was important to remind myself that it was my love of golf that secured my position as No. 1 in the world. That passion for the game is something I’m really enjoying again.
PGATOUR.COM: Did all the scrutiny and speculation you had to deal with over the past year make you more guarded?
McILROY: I wouldn’t say that. I think people have warmed to me for who I am, for the honesty I display on and off the course. I’m learning to take the rough with the smooth, too. It simply wouldn’t be me if I couldn’t show elation after a win or disappointment when things haven’t exactly gone to plan. You get what you see.
PGATOUR.COM: Is there more of an awareness on your end in that respect, because you have to limit certain things to achieve what you want?
A: To a certain degree, perhaps. I have to make decisions, with my team, to give myself the best chance to win tournaments. Indeed, that might be a change of location, equipment, or even planning of my schedule. Do sacrifices have to be made? Of course. It’s about golf, essentially, and winning.
PGATOUR.COM: Speaking of winning, what did the victory over Adam Scott in Australia at the end of last year mean in terms of confidence for you?
McILROY: Adam’s a great friend, as you know. A victory over the world’s No. 2 is tremendously important, irrespective of who holds the position. But to end an up-and-down season with a win? Yes, that’s a real boost, and is something I hope to carry into this year.
PGATOUR.COM: You seem to be following his model and have set up your own management company. What was the thought process behind that, and were there any regrets having been through two management firms by age 24 and the difficulty that presented?
McILROY: Yes, a small, contained team of trusted professionals and family is what I’m building at the moment. But I’m not sure if regret is the right term for management changes. I saw my future differently in each case and decided accordingly. Management teams often have to consider other players in their camp when decisions are being made, and I think I outgrew that. I won’t pretend everything in the future will be smooth sailing because obstacles will always present themselves and there will be highs and lows. Now that the decisions rest with me, though, I’ll have to take the poor ones on the chin.
PGATOUR.COM: You moved to Florida last year. How was that transition, selling your home in Northern Ireland and moving to America? What was the reason you moved here?
McILROY: It’s never an easy transition moving from home. Home will always be home. I’m never going to sever ties with family or friends -- they’re the foundation of everything I am. The sale of my Northern Ireland property was sensible, perhaps even inevitable. Taking up my PGA TOUR card brought with it so many changes but benefits too. I’m now in the thick of it in every sense -- majors, PGA TOUR events and the FedExCup. A few wins have helped settle me in, too.
PGATOUR.COM: There’s usually an adjustment period when a player switches equipment. What part of the bag was most difficult to get fine-tuned and comfortable with, and how long did it take?
McILROY: It would be fantastic to be 100 percent comfortable with all 14 clubs at the same time, but I know what you mean. Distance is such an important factor in my game, so my driver is something I really need to be comfortable with. My putter, too, of course -- feel is everything. It was worth taking the time to get it right, and working with a very talented Nike team really helped. I now have the best driver and ball combo I’ve ever used.
PGATOUR.COM: Will you be making any more changes or tweaks, or have you settled on everything in the bag for a while?
McILROY: I’m pretty settled with the kit, to be honest. To say nothing will ever change, though, would be a mistake. Over time clubs will change and so will my swing. The important thing is to ensure one adapts to the other.
PGATOUR.COM: Your fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell said recently he plans to play for Ireland in the 2016 Olympics. Have you decided whether you’ll play for Great Britain or Ireland?
McILROY: I haven’t made a decision yet. There’s no real urgency at the moment, and I couldn’t even imagine planning my schedule that far ahead. I will have to decide, however, and take into consideration many sensibilities.
PGATOUR.COM: No. 1 in the world, winning two majors, signing a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal -- were you fully prepared for the level of stardom that you reached so quickly? Was it in any way too much too soon?
McILROY: It did come up on me rather quickly. But too soon? It wasn’t as if I could put the brakes on playing well or hold back the No. 1 spot until I considered what it would mean. That said, being in the spotlight does take a bit of getting used to. I’m still learning to manage the level of attention, to be honest, in all its guises.
PGATOUR.COM: You’re often credited for being mature beyond your years, not unfairly either. Do we sometimes forget however that you’re still just 24 years old?
McILROY: Of course I’m still learning, as a golfer and in my life outside the game. But to come this far in my career was not something that happened overnight. I suppose there has been lot of learning and some degree of preparation for this during my amateur days and early professional career. But it’s ongoing, naturally.
PGATOUR.COM: Who do you look up to -- whether it is someone you turn to for advice or as an example of a path to follow or how to handle things?
McILROY: There are so many that I will have to give you a condensed version. My mum and dad for their sacrifice and support. There are many more -- my caddie J.P. (Fitzgerald) and my coach Michael (Bannon), for instance -- all for many different reasons.
PGATOUR.COM: Who gives you a kick in the butt when you need one the most?
McILROY: Ha! All of the above. Joking aside, I think I sometimes need that kick to help keep me grounded. And I don’t mind (as much) being told straight when it’s from people who have my best interests at heart.
PGATOUR.COM: You’ve spent a fair amount of time around Tiger Woods. What have you learned from him, and has he rubbed off on you in any way?
McILROY: Tournament play, sponsor days and charitable stuff do bring us together a lot. What have I learned? Well, Tiger’s an inspiration on and off the course. His tireless work ethic is legendary as an example to every golfer of the commitment needed to enjoy success. Even the scale of Tiger’s foundation work, which is something he doesn’t get a lot of attention for, has improved the lives of so many young people. I hope these examples continue to rub off on me.
PGATOUR.COM: You have admitted that how you are playing is often tied to your mood and vice versa. In general, what makes you happy? What makes you mad?
McILROY: I don’t think I’m an isolated example of a golfer who’s happy when he’s playing well and frustrated when he’s not. It’s really just the way things are. But winning, knowing my game is in good order and being fit really keeps me positive. I do get upset sometimes, however, when I’m personally criticized for not playing well enough. I respect the opinions of those close to me -- whether family, friends or media -- but uninformed or meaningless attacks are a little less easy to swallow.
PGATOUR: What ultimately are your goals for 2014?
McILROY: Take a wild guess! But seriously, my goals are to add to my tournament count. That sounds as if I’m stating the obvious but I mean to be more measured and realistic in my planning, on and off the course, and patient in my approach. Ensuring I prepare correctly in my off weeks is also a huge goal. If I achieve this I know I have given myself every chance to succeed. I learned in 2013 that major equipment or swing changes don’t always yield immediate results. I feel a lot more settled now with the changes and I’m convinced they were necessary for the next stage in my development. Winning and being in contention are indications of things beginning to work.