Rory McIlroy wants boyish bounce back to rekindle major mojo
He’s the curly-haired kid who lit up Carnoustie as an amateur, and now Rory McIlroy hopes to channel some of that boyish bounce as he seeks a fifth major title at the Open this week.
McIlroy, a childhood prodigy from Northern Ireland, made his splash on the wider golf scene as a chirpy 18-year-old when the Open was last played at Carnoustie in 2007.
The cheerful, chubby youngster was tied fourth after the first round and ended the week as the leading amateur, launching a career which has given him multiple spells as world No.1 and yielded untold riches.
But without a major in four years, the now married 29-year-old thinks embracing his youth could be the key to the future — barring that thick mop of curly black hair.
“Looking back at the pictures, it’s funny. It’s great memories,” the now well-honed McIlroy told reporters at Carnoustie.
“When I looked in the mirror back then I didn’t think it was as big as it was. Anyways, we live and learn.”
He added: “I remember that week very fondly. I hadn’t even turned pro yet and didn’t know what to expect or the journey that I was about to embark on.”
‘Young and oblivious’
McIlroy turned pro later that year and rocketed up the rankings, first reaching the top spot in March 2012.
He enjoyed a prolific streak from 2011, when he won his first major, the US Open, adding a US PGA title in 2012 and clinching the Open and US PGA again back-to-back in 2014.
Since then his flame has flickered, but McIlroy hopes his major mojo can return by revisiting his 18-year-old self.
“I’ve alluded to the fact that sometimes I think I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” said McIlroy, who is now ranked eighth.
“It was my first Open Championship. I was just trying to soak everything in.
“Sometimes, the pressure that’s put on the top guys to perform at such a high level every week, that starts to weigh on you a little bit. But I look back at those pictures and the more I can be like that kid, the better.”
He added: “I think as you get a little older, you get a little more cautious in life. It’s only natural.
“There is something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff.
“When we last played the Open here I was bouncing down the fairways, didn’t care if I shot 82 or 62. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”
McIlroy stands on the brink of golf’s grand slam of winning all four major titles, needing only the Masters to join the elite group of five players to have achieved the feat.
He played in the final group at Augusta in April but fell away as playing partner Patrick Reed clinched the green jacket.
Recently, McIlroy said the Masters was the “biggest tournament in golf,” but insisted at Carnoustie Wednesday all the majors were equal, including the Open.
“It’s just as big,” he said. “I won’t feel any less nervous on the first tee tomorrow [Thursday] than I would at Augusta or at Shinnecock [US Open] this year, or at Bellerive [US PGA venue].
“I try to treat them all the same. Easier said than done when April comes around, but that’s how I try to approach it.”
He added: “I’ve had a decent career up to this point, and I’ve got a lot of time left to add to my major tally or just tournaments won. It’s hard to win any week on Tour, let alone the four big ones.”
McIlroy’s Open record is often underrated, with a fifth and fourth in the last two years following his absence from St. Andrews in 2015 because of an ankle injury from playing football.
His one Open title came in a procession at a benign Hoylake in 2014, while he was also third in 2010 after opening with a major record-equaling 63 before being blown off track with an 80 in strong winds on day two.
But despite growing up on a diet of links golf in all weathers, his relationship with the Open has sometimes been less than amicable.
In 2011 he bemoaned the wild weather which battered him into submission at Royal St. George’s, saying: “It’s not my sort of golf.”
At the 2013 Open at Muirfield, while struggling to cope with a switch to a new equipment manufacturer and off-course legal issues with his management company, he stumbled to a disastrous first round and admitted afterwards he was “brain dead.”
From man to boy
But the highs and lows are all part and parcel of McIlroy’s mercurial make up.
And he insists he is a serious contender this week, despite Carnoustie’s reputation as a beast of a course earning it the nickname “Car-nasty.”
“I feel like I’ve developed and I’ve grown as a links player,” he said.
“I’ve added some shots and a few things to my game that have helped over the last few years. Hopefully, I can keep that run going and get myself a little bit closer to being right in the mix on Sunday.”
When Ireland’s Padraig Harrington dueled with Spain’s Sergio Garcia — both idols to the young McIlroy — to win a playoff at Carnoustie in 2007, McIlroy was waiting behind the 18th green with Harrington’s wife and young son Paddy, who famously used the Claret Jug as a receptacle for his ladybird collection.
“I remember just after turning pro I went to Padraig’s house and he had the Claret Jug sitting on the kitchen table with the ladybird coming out of it,” he said.
“Obviously I don’t have any kids yet, but hopefully there’s a young amateur this week that’s waiting behind the 18th green on me and I’m the one that’s coming up there trying to win the tournament.”
From boy to man, and maybe back to boy again.
A second Claret Jug would see him return home to Northern Ireland as defending champion at Portrush next year.
For McIlroy, it could be Carnoustie Karma.