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McIlroy Looks Forward to Fresh Start
After a difficult 2013 season in which he experienced much growing pains, Rory McIlroy promises "no more silliness" as the embarks on another year as a touring professional. The Northern Irishman starts in that quest for consistency Thursday in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in the United Arab Emirates.
For the first time in his young career, the 24-year-old went a year without a victory on either the PGA or European tours. The two-time major champion's last title came in September 2012 when he won the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship in consecutive weeks.
But it's been a long dry spell since then after he switched clubs, instructors and agents while dealing with a media frenzy encircling him and his girlfriend, tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki. But McIlroy feels much more grounded. For one thing, he's now engaged to be married to Wozniacki.
And that stability showed up last month when he came out of his funk in outdueling 2013 Masters champion in the Australian Open with a final-round 66 to edge the Aussie by a stroke.
McIlroy certainly seems to have matured as his responsibilities have increased. "Yes, 2013 was disappointing from a professional standpoint, but, as a whole personally it was a great year," he told reporters Tuesday from the course site.
"I feel I have stability in my life now and the engagement will only help with regards to knowing everything in my life is set. I mean, if you get engaged, you plan to spend the rest of your life with that person, so it is a big decision. But she's definitely the right girl for me."
Here's what else the No. 7-ranked player in the world told the media from Abu Dhabi. He'll be paired in the first round with No. 4 Phil Mickelson and defending champion Jamie Donaldson.
MODERATOR: Rory, many thanks for joining us. Welcome back to Abu Dhabi, happy new year, and I think we should start by saying congratulations, as well. If you want to start, just by telling us about the new year and the proposal.
RORY McILROY: Yeah, it's been a great New Year's. Obviously it was a great end to last year, as well, and playing well at the end of the season, getting a win down in Australia and then getting engaged in the same place, so that was quite nice. But yeah, we didn't actually - I was always going to do it on New Year's, but we weren't actually expecting to be in Sydney. I thought we were still going to be in Brisbane. But Caroline had to pull out with a shoulder injury, and then thought it would be nice to spend New Year's in Sydney. And we were out on a boat in the harbor for New Year's and fireworks and stuff.
MODERATOR: Many congratulations.
RORY McILROY: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Turning attentions to the golf, end of 2013 you finished strongly, give us your thoughts on the year ahead to start off with.
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I'm really looking forward it. I feel like I'm much better prepared heading into the first event of the season than I was last year. You know, swing is in a much better place. I've done some really good work on that, the end of last year, and just in the couple of weeks that I've had here leading into this tournament. So you know, things are really looking good. I'm in a really good frame of mind and I feel like I've built a lot of sort of momentum at the back end of last year and going to try to continue that into this season. Yeah, just really excited to get going. This is a golf course that I've done well on in the past, obviously last year being the exception, but as I said, feel like I'm in a much better place to start off the year.
MODERATOR: And talk a little bit specifically about this week. This will be the seventh year you've started your season here, runner up a couple of times, four top 10s. It's a perfect way to start the year for you.
RORY McILROY: Yeah, it is. It's a golf course that's always sort of suited my eye. I've always done well here. I had a couple of chances to win, and Kaymer was just too good those times. Yeah, it's a long golf course and you've got to hit it well off the tee and take advantage of the par-5s, which I feel like I can do. So yeah, it's a perfect - it's always a very strong field to start the year and a good, competitive sort of first event. I don't think there's any better place to start the season, especially for me, because you go two weeks to practice really either here or Dubai to lead up to this tournament and feel really well prepared.
Q. Someone who saw you work out at Butch Harmon's School of Golf said that you were really working your ass off for the last ten days. Can you just tell us what you were really working on, was there something specific preparing for the season and how was those 10 days over there?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, they were really good. And yeah, I did, I did work my ass off, but I feel like I need to. Yeah, I worked on a few different things, a couple of little things in the golf swing which still I wanted to try and get completely right. I think my golf swing, because it's quite a natural motion, it's always going to be evolving; it's always going to be changing from time to time, and I just have to keep on top of a few key things just to make sure that it's always where I wanted to being. So worked hard on that. Played quite a lot of golf, as well, a few rounds and stuff. Played Yas Links for the first time a few days ago, which I really enjoyed, and then did a lot of gym work, as well. I had my trainer over for a week and we're doing two sessions a day sometimes. Yeah, it was a really good 10 days, and I feel like I'm really well prepared to start the season.
Q. Obviously two years running now, you've come in on the back of what we'd call 'big life' changes, but as well as the swing, do you feel that this one is something that's actually put you in a great frame of mind mentally, as well, for the year ahead?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I mean, I guess one thing I would have - reflecting back on last year, there was a lot of, I guess could you say, instability or whatever, and I feel like I'm just starting this year on such a different sort of platform. Everything sort of feels like it sort of fell into place and I can just focus on my golf. I know that everything else away from that is in a really good place, and I'm happy and I can go and try and play the golf that I know that I can.
Q. And can I ask you about the Majors? Phil came in and was very specifically targeting the U.S. Open. I know you've won two majors, but are you going to do anything different? Are you going to play weeks before? Is there something that you think will get you over the line this time?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I think one thing I'm going to do for sure is I'll definitely play the week before the Open Championship and get some competitive links golf. It's all well and good, I guess practicing on links and hitting the shots, but once you actually play competitively, it's a little bit different. I think a week of competitive golf before the Open Championship at Aberdeen will be a great way to lead into the Open Championship. And apart from that, not really. I'll play the week before Augusta, Houston, just because they set the golf course up pretty similarly. We always play the week before in Akron leading into the PGA. I mean, I've won two majors: One, I've taken the week off before; one I've played the week before. I don't think there's any sort of set way to do it. Obviously you feel like you have to be in some sort of form going into the event, but it really depends on the week and mentally how your energy is, how you're executing the shots, how you handle the pressure, all that sort of stuff. You obviously can do things to try to prepare yourself as much as possible, but still you have to perform on that given week.
Q. You said you want to play competitively the week before. Has the decision to take the event back to a traditional links played a part in that decision?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, definitely. I think one of the reasons I didn't play the last couple years - I mean, I'm sure the golf course that it was played on was a very good golf course, but I just didn't think as a - I don't think you should look at the Scottish Open as a preparation week because it's a great event in its own right. But if you want to get some good, similar style shots, it was good to go back to a traditional links. I think it was a really good decision that they made.
Q. I was going to say, you scooped me by announcing your engagement in Sydney. In terms of decisions you've made in your career, where does that rank, to take that leap?
RORY McILROY: The engagement? In my career? I don't think it will - if anything, it will only help to have that stability and know that everything in that regard in my life is set. I mean, it's a big step in anyone's life to make that decision, and obviously it's not one that you sort of take lightly. If you get engaged, you plan on spending the rest of your life with that person, so it's a big decision but I feel like she's definitely the right girl for me.
Q. As I segue by Bernie into this question, I'm wondering, did you drop a little romance on her? How did you pop the question, and was she surprised?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, we were out on a boat in Sydney Harbour for NewYear's Eve, and fireworks and just in front of the opera house and stuff. Yeah, I guess there was a little bit of romance involved. And yeah, she was surprised. I had an idea that -I mean, it might have been what she wanted or it was something that she would say yes to I guess; I hoped she would say yes. Yeah, it all worked out and it was a great way to, I guess a great way to end 2013 and a great way to start 2014.
Q. Were there other people on the boat? Did you drop to a knee so people probably saw this happening? Public?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, it's a funny story. It's too long to go into but yeah -
Q. Go on! Go on! (Laughter)
RORY McILROY: No, I'll keep that between us (smiling).
Q. Apart from that, I'm interested to hear how you would characterize 2013, firstly, and secondly, what do you think is the thing, the most interesting, most significant thing you learned from 2013?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, characterize it, from a professional standpoint, it wasn't my best year. I feel like I was really encouraged at the end of the year with how I played. I finished well in some big tournaments, the HSBC tournament in Shanghai, top 5 in Dubai, and then to go down to Australia and win. So I was really encouraged with how I played at the end of the year. But as a whole, it was disappointing. I didn't play well enough in the majors. I didn't get myself into contention enough, so that's something I'm going to try and change for this year. But as a whole, 2013, if you look at everything, it was a great year. You know, personally for me, it was a great year, and I'm just really excited to start 2014 and get back to playing the golf that I know that I can.
Q. At what point in 2013 did you sense the biggest frustration and on the other side of the coin, when did you feel it started to turn around?
RORY McILROY: Biggest frustration was probably at the Open Championship, was probably my - I had never missed the cut at the Open. Yeah, anything I was trying to do to the golf ball I couldn't do. I was putting into bunkers. I was doing all sorts of stupid stuff. It was basically after that; I played okay at Akron. I top 10'ed it at the PGA. FedEx Cup wasn't great, but then I took four weeks off in between that and going to Asia, and in that period, I did some great work with my coach, Michael Bannon, and it was maybe like two or three days before I headed to Korea, something just sort of started to feel a bit better and started to click, and then I just kept it going from there. That's the reason that I played well at the end of the season, and once you feel like something's there, and then you start to see some decent results, your confidence starts to build and it just sort of snowballs.
Q. We're talking about Majors but how much are you looking forward to getting to Gleneagles and helping Europe hold on to the Cup?
RORY McILROY: It's going to be great. I need to make the team first. Been trying to sweeten McGinley up, as well, here and there in case I don't (laughter). Ryder Cup year is always an exciting year, and you want to make the team as early as possible and get that out of the way so you're not having to think about it at all. Good start to the season, hopefully get that wrapped up, and then - then you don't really think about it until it gets closer. We have a big run in the States in September with all the Playoffs, the FedEx Cup stuff. And then I think we have a week off in between Tour Championship and the Ryder Cup, so that's when you start to prepare for it. Yeah, it's great. It's great to be a part of. The two that I've been a part of have been two of the most enjoyable weeks I've ever had on the golf course. I'm really looking forward to hopefully being part of the team again and trying to win a third one in a row.
Q. Twelve months ago here, it was all pretty mad with the fireworks, the big stage, the huge TV everything and. When you look back at that, how do you think of it now? Do you cringe a little?
RORY McILROY: No, I think it was a big deal. It was a big decision for me. I think it was a big thing for Nike. It was a whole - it was a real big step in my career. But I guess it just sort of I had so many things to try and think about or focus on, and am I going to use this or am I going to use that or is this driver better than that one; there was a lot of I guess instability. There was just loads of stuff going on around me and that didn't let me focus 100 per cent on what I needed to do which was to try to play the best that I could. This year is polar opposite. Everything seems to have just fallen into place nicely, and I can just go out there and focus on my golf and try and play it as well as I can.
Q. Just in terms of the golf preparation, how big was it not to have to be testing stuff the last few weeks?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, it's been nice. I'm using the exact same setup that I used for last quarter of last year, so not to be using anything else or testing anything or tinkering around, it's been great. I've never really been a tinkerer as such. I don't really like to change that much. Once I've set on something, I like to just keep it. It's been nice that way. I feel like the driver and the ball that I've put in just before going to that little Asian stretch at the end of the year has really, really helped. I'm really happy with that. Yeah, it's been great to just focus on my game and not focus on trying to get certain things in the bag that sort of suit me. So it's been good.
Q. Just going to ask you, looking ahead to the four majors this year and apart from Augusta, what do you know about the other three venues and have you played those three venues?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I played the British Boys in 2003 at Hoylake, and it was a completely different setup. I guess we played the first hole, which is now, if they play it in The Open, would maybe be the third around the corner in the practice area. So it was a different setup. I mean, I can remember it. All I remember - it was quite flat. It was sort of a very flat golf course. And I remember watching it in '06. It was obviously a very hot week and it was very burnt and Tiger didn't hit many drivers or whatever. But Valhalla, I haven't played and Pinehurst I haven't played. I'll go to both of those venues before at some point and see what they are like. And obviously Augusta is Augusta; it changes subtly each year. They will do something on a few of the greens or one of the greens. Just got to go check it out for one or two days before that. But yeah, the other courses, I'll check out closer to the time.
Q. I think you probably said you played a little too much in 2012, and then expressed the at end of the year, thoughts that maybe you wish you'd played a little bit more last year. Just wondering, you'll play here, Dubai, and then can you kind of run us through the year?
RORY McILROY: I guess it's all - I'm going with the approach this year that it's all sort of a little - I'm trying to leave it a little fluid. I'm sort of like, yeah, I might play here, I might play there. I know that I'm going to play here and I'm going to play Dubai, and then if I have a good two weeks, I'll probably start at match play. And if I don't feel like I've played the way I want to, I'll probably start in L.A. So it really just depends. Then if I start at L.A., I might play Honda or if I do, I might - so it's all a bit sort of fluid in a way. So I'm just sort of going with that approach that depends on how I start the year and then I can adjust in a way. So I'm not really set on anything apart from the two World Golf Championships, and then Houston, the Masters, Quail Hollow, TPC and then after that, I don't really, I guess haven't really - yeah, it's all sort of a little bit fluid at the minute. I haven't really got a set schedule and it's something that I'm working on.
Q. What brought you to that point at the Open? I know watching it, it was difficult watching it, understanding how a player of your ability to perform like that, so below your own expectations. Have you had enough time to look at the year and decide what went wrong, what went right, and how important is it going forward that you have identified what happened?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, it was - I was low on confidence and it's usually something I don't struggle with. So that's something that was just very strange for me and very out of character, just because I wasn't believing in my own ability. Especially I played with Phil the first two days at the Open and it completely demoralized me because I played so well. Yeah, I wasn't in control of my golf ball, and especially at Muirfield when the ground was so firm. You have to be spot on. And if you're even a slight bit off, it made you look silly at times and I was a long way off, and made me look even sillier.
So I just needed to go back to the drawing board there and just say, right, what do I actually need to do here to get this back on track. Identified a few things in the swing, identified a few things I could do mentally on the golf course, and then from there it was just a process of just trying to salvage something from the year. Getting a top 10 in a major was good. Didn't play great in the Playoffs, but then that last six tournaments of the season, starting in Korea and then going through China and Dubai and Australia, that's when it really started to feel much better.
Q. How much of a factor was all of the stuff going on off the course?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I mean, it's a distraction. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and say that it didn't affect me. Of course it did. You're thinking of other things when you really shouldn't have to. But it's the last year I'm ever going to have to go through something like that, and I've learned from it and I'm starter because of it. It's great that I've went through it at this stage in my career and not 15 years down the line.
Q. Following up on the schedule, Tiger has had success for a number of years playing fewer tournaments than everyone else; Adam has cut back; Stricker had a lot of success with that last year. Is there a tendency to play fewer tournaments?
RORY McILROY: I don't know. I think - I enjoy playing golf. I enjoy - I'm stuck in one place for more than two weeks and I want to sort of get back out there. Yeah, they are at that stage - okay, Tiger has done it for most of his career and Adam has notoriously just like to play a very light schedule. But someone like Phil or Steve Stricker, they are into their 40s and their family is a priority. I completely understand why they would want to play a reduced schedule. I don't think I'm at that point yet. I'm 24 years old and I like to play golf, so I'm going to play where I want to play.
Q. You've talked a couple of times in the past about how you tend to play your best golf when you've got a smile on your face and you've got the positive body language; with what's happened, improvement in the form and getting engaged, are we going to see that back this year do you think?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I think so. As I say, everything off the golf course, it's set and I'm in a great place, I'm happy. So, yeah, I mean, there's no reason why I shouldn't be smiling. So, yes, go out and play and see what happens. But I'm feeling good about my game. I feel good about where I am mentally. I feel good with everything that's going on off the course. Yeah, it's hopefully shaping up to be a good year.
MODERATOR: Nice positive note to end on, Rory. Thanks for joining us. The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.