SAN FRANCISCO — Rory McIlroy was cruising. Not a care in the world.
He owned the world No. 1 ranking. He was in great form, with six consecutive top-5 finishes, including one victory. And he was defending his 2019 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in March.
Then the PGA Tour, along with the rest of sports, was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the PGA Tour’s restart in June, McIlroy’s results have been trending alarmingly in the wrong direction entering Thursday’s opening round of the PGA Championship at Harding Park.
“Before the world sort of shut down, I was playing some really good golf,’’ McIlroy said Wednesday. “Then having that three-month break, coming back, everything sort of changed. Everything feels different, in the competitive arena, anyway.’’
Changed is an understatement.
Since the PGA Tour’s restart, McIlroy has played in five events and finished better than tied for 32nd only once — a tie for 11th at the Travelers Championship. He tied for 32nd at the Charles Schwab Challenge, tied for 41st at the RBC Heritage, tied for 11th at Travelers, tied for 32nd at the Memorial and tied for 47th at last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Along the way, McIlroy lost the No. 1 ranking he’d held since February to Jon Rahm when Rahm won the Memorial.
Still, though, the 31-year old Northern Irishman didn’t sound ready to push any panic buttons on Wednesday.
“My game doesn’t feel that far away,’’ McIlroy said. “I feel like I’ve played pretty well. I just haven’t got a lot out of my game, haven’t scored as well as I was doing before the lockdown. [I] haven’t been as efficient as I was back then. Short game hasn’t quite been as sharp.
“It’s the first major in over a year, and it would be a great week to get back into some form and give it a good run.’’
McIlroy should have some positive vibes coming from Harding Park, where he won the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play, going 7-0 en route to victory.
“If I remember anything about the week is that I played well when I needed to and I hit good shots at the right times,’’ McIlroy said. “It’s nice to have some memories around a golf course that you’re playing a major championship on. Hopefully some of that can help me this week and can rekindle that sort of form that helped me win here a few years ago.’’
Of more big-picture concern to McIlroy is the fact that he hasn’t won a major championship since the 2014 PGA Championship. That was his fourth career major in four years.
In the 19 majors he has played since his last win, McIlroy has 10 top-10 finishes, including five top-5s.
“It doesn’t keep me up at night and I don’t think about it every day, but when I play these major championships, it’s something that I’m obviously reminded of,’’ he said. “Yeah, I would have liked to have won a couple more majors in that time frame, and I feel like I’ve had a couple of decent chances to do so and I just haven’t got the job done.
“But the good thing is we have at least three opportunities this year [the U.S. Open is in September and the Masters in November]. We’re playing seven major championships in the next 12 months. I’ve got plenty of opportunities coming my way.’’
McIlroy believes — with good reason — his opportunity this week is a good one.
“Coming back from sort of post-COVID, there’s been good scores in there,’’ he said. “I shot a 63 at Colonial, I shot a 65 to make the cut at Hilton Head, a 63 at Travelers, a couple of good scores last week in Memphis. So, the good stuff is in there.’’
The question is whether that “good stuff’’ will show itself for four rounds this week, return McIlroy to the top form he was in pre-pandemic and deliver him his first major championship in six years?
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