McIlroy Wants to Focus on Golf

There are several reasons why Rory McIlroy fell from his perch as the No. 1 golfer in the world. What was emerging as a spectacular career with six wins - including two majors - on the PGA Tour in just over three years took a detour in 2013.

Indeed, the 24-year-old Northern Irishman has, quite shockingly, gone winless this year. In 16 starts on the PGA Tour, McIlroy missed two cuts and had only five top-10 finishes. In his career, he's played 71 tournaments and had 28 top-10s, so it's quite apparent that 2013 didn't measure up to his standards.

Part of the problem came from a lucrative - but perhaps too quick and ill-advised - switch of equipment to Nike at the beginning of the year. That, combined with swing changes added uncertainty to his former free-flowing, effortless stroke.

He also made headlines off the course. His sudden place in the media spotlight has been exacerbated by his much-ballyhooed relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

Compounding things has been an ongoing legal battle with his ex-agent, Horizon Sports Management, and a former sponsor, Oakley.

"I've seen more lawyers' offices and more lawyers this year than I care to see in my entire life," McIlroy said Tuesday. "It's not something I ever want to go through again, and I'm making sure that I won't go through it again.

"As a golfer, you want your mind as clear as possible, and it's hard for that to happen when you've got other things that are going on that, firstly, you don't want to happen, and secondly, you don't feel should be happening. It has been a distraction."

McIlroy said he went to someone who's been through the distraction wringer, Tiger Woods, now a good friend and adviser on off-course issues. "Sometimes you have to say 'no' and sometimes you have to put yourself first and say 'no,' and I need to do this for myself to maintain the level in my game," McIlroy said.

"It's something Tiger actually said to me last year. He said you have to remember what got you here in the first place, and you know Tiger, it's 'no' 99 percent of the time for him."

McIlroy's last victory in either the States or Europe - where he's won three times - came a year ago in the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, the season-ending event on the European Tour. He edged Justin Rose by two strokes at Jumeirah Golf Estates, concluding a banner year in which he won the Race to Dubai and the money title on the PGA Tour.

The Ulsterman returns to the event at Jumeirah, which will determine the European Tour's 2013 Race to Dubai (money list) winner. The $8 million tournament begins Thursday. McIroy, now ranked sixth in the world and 46th in the Race to Dubai, won't be in the marquee group unlike last year. He's paired in the opening round of the 60-player event with No. 47 Darren Firchardt.

On Tuesday, McIlroy met with reporters and talked about the peripheral stuff that has deflected his focus. Here's what he had to say during that Q&A.

MODERATOR: Rory, thanks very much for coming in today. Welcome back to Dubai. A couple of weeks ago, you had a really good performance in the HSBC Champions. Do you feel like you're getting back to your best form now?

RORY McILROY: Yeah, I feel like I'm playing well. I feel like I'm playing much better. Obviously a lot of improvement in my game, and a lot of positive signs, which is a great thing. So, yeah, I feel good. I put in some good work; that little stretch that we had off after the FedEx Cup stuff in America, felt like my game has been steadily progressing ever since. I've still got a couple more tournaments left this year, and obviously it's nice to come back to a place like Dubai where I had success last year, and some good memories. So I'm in a good place to sort of try and defend my title this week.

MODERATOR: Absolutely and that takes me on to my next question. Being back at this place, which is special for you, is that particularly inspiring this week?

RORY McILROY: Yeah, it seems like every year that I've came here, I've had maybe apart from 2010, I've been in the mix to try and win the Race to Dubai. I've been there or thereabouts. Obviously Lee in '09 played very well to beat me, and Luke in '11 and obviously last year, it was nice to be able to, for it to be my turn. A little bit different coming in this week and not having much to play for in terms of Race to Dubai, but still want to try and finish the season off really strongly. I feel like this course really suits my game. I know it would be a great way to obviously cap off the European season with a win.

Q. Can you just tell us what have you been up to in the last seven days? Have you been working your butt off for this week or have you been relaxing?

RORY McILROY: Took a few days off. Took a bit of time off, and then started to practice again on Sunday.

Q. In Dubai?

RORY McILROY: Yeah. So started to practice again on Sunday. It was nice just to take a few days off, because I had worked hard leading up to the three events in Asia, obviously three weeks in a row there, so it takes a bit out of you. So it was nice to take a few days off and relax and get back into a couple of really good days practice Sunday and Monday. It was great to see the course today again, and it was actually good to see it in the morning time, because I'm going to be playing pretty early on Thursday. So it's a good indication of what sort of clubs you'll be hitting off tees and what to expect. So it's been good. It's been a nice few days, and I'm looking forward to getting back into some competitive play on Thursday.

Q. Going to seem like a trick question; it's not intended to be. Can you just summarize the craziness of the past year since you birdied five holes in a row and walked off the 18th green as basically the king of the world? It's been almost impossible to predict what's happening for you this year.

RORY McILROY: Yeah, it's been an interesting year. Obviously a lot of stuff's went on on the course, off the course. But the big thing for me is my game is in really good shape again, and that's the most important thing. My game is in good shape, and if that starts to work the way I know I can and the way most people know I can, and everything else sort of falls into place. Everything else isn't really a worry. But yeah, swinging it much better. Hitting the ball much better. In control of my ball, ball flight, you know, and that's the most important thing; that seems to, has started to come around. And obviously I'm still working hard and still, you know, trying to get better all the time, but it's back to a place where I'm comfortable with and to a place where I feel like I can win golf tournaments.

Q. Do you think you've learned more this year than last year and if so, what, and if not, why not?

RORY McILROY: Yeah, I learned it's funny, it's like polar opposites. I guess I learnt last year how to deal with the hype and deal with people obviously building you up, and this year I've learned to deal with criticism. So it's been two opposite ends of the spectrum. I try to learn from everything that I do, and yeah, I mean, every year is a learning year. Every year for me is still a new experience. Last year was getting to world No. 1 and being the dominant player in the world for a while. This year, it's been having to handle criticism and scrutiny. So there's always something you can learn. I've learned a lot from that this year.

Q. You referred to off the course stuff, now that we are at the end of the year, to what extent, do you think, if any, has that impacted on the golf course?

RORY McILROY: There's been - definitely there's been a few things that have impacted. Obviously a few different things to think about and different things that occupy your head that really shouldn't. But, you know, it's just the way it is and the position that I'm in. You know, it's something that will be sorted out hopefully sooner rather than later, but yeah, that's the way it is and comes with the territory I guess.

Q. How frustrating has it been for you to be right at the top, and then zap, you're dropped to the lower rungs of the rankings, and also on the money list?

RORY McILROY: Yeah, dropped to six, I know it's terrible. Really bad. Terrible. (Laughter). Yeah, it's fine. It's not the place that I want to be in, but it hasn't been a disastrous year. I've played well in patches. I haven't played consistently well. I haven't given myself as many chances to win as I would have liked. But as I said, my game feels in really good shape and I've got a few tournaments left this year to try and put a win on the board. So that's the most important thing. Once you start to win golf tournaments again, you know, everything else takes care of itself, whether it's rankings or whatever it is. You try and win golf tournaments and you eventually start to do that again, and everything else just sort of falls into place.

Q. Last year after winning, you credited your driver and your ability off the tee to help you win the tournament. How confident are you now off the tee?

RORY McILROY: It's great. It's been the strongest part of my game for the last couple of months. I drove the ball really well for the most part in Asia, and it's been great. I'm hitting the ball further than ever. It took me a little bit of time this year to find one that was completely right for me. But I'm driving the ball great. That's the foundation of my game. If I can drive the ball well and drive it long and straight, it gives me a huge advantage over most of the field and it's something that when I'm on my game, I can really take advantage of, and I was able to do that last year. This is a perfect golf course for that. If you can carry it over 300 yards, you've got a huge advantage on some of the guys here, and it's something I'll be trying to do this week.

Q. Do you have a strategy in place for preseason? This region has always been very important. You've trained at the Els Club before Abu Dhabi and there's a new European Tour Performance Institute that's opening today at the Jumeirah Golf Estates. Do you see the UAE as crucial to your preseason?

RORY McILROY: No, I'll definitely be coming here. I've done it every year since I've turned pro. I'll spend a couple of weeks here before going Abu Dhabi. I'm actually coming out here earlier than I ever have next year. As you said, the facilities here are second to none. You've got - I know Justin Parsons well from the Butch Harmon school there and we usually go there because, you know, he's a good friend and we get a bit of peace and quiet there. Maybe not now that I'm saying all this. (Laughter). But it's great, and you know, they have got a nice little gym there, they have got a great setup if you want to analyze your swing. Obviously my coach, Michael Bannon, comes out with me and we spend a good two weeks working on my game, a bit of a mini boot camp to start the season off. It's worked well in the past and I don't think it's a formula that I really want to change.

Q. As you said, you've got a couple of events left, how do you go into 2014, looking at it as many ways starting fresh and starting the slate clean, and of the four major venues, have you played Valhalla or Hoylake or Pinehurst?

RORY McILROY: I played Hoylake a long time ago in the British Boys'. I haven't played Valhalla and I haven't played Pinehurst. Yeah, all - I don't want to say because it's disrespectful of all the other tournaments, that there's four massive tournaments a year that you want to try and peak for. Obviously there's other important events during the year, but I guess most of my work will - I've went into Augusta the last couple of years actually playing pretty well. But the thing that's held me back there is that I wasn't able to turn the ball over. You obviously need to draw off most of the tees there and that's sort of held me back on a few holes.

If you can get your draw going around Augusta and have your short game razor sharp, you're always going to have a good chance. You look at like the people that have done well there, even someone like Jason Day, who has had a chance the last couple of years; he drives it really well and he's got a phenomenal short game. That's what you need around Augusta. You know, you will be thinking of it, you'll be building up to that for the first few months of the season, and once that's over, you'll be thinking about what you need for Pinehurst, which is get the ball in the fairway in a U.S. Open and have your consistency levels with your ball striking up as much as you can, because when you hit fairways and greens at the U.S. Open, you're not going to be too far away.

There's just different aspects for all the Majors but there's a lot of tournaments that you want to try and win. But I think it's important, the seasons that I've had success in, I've got off to good starts. This year I didn't get off to a good start and obviously struggled to get into it, so I think it's important to get off to a good start each and every year, and that's what I'm going to try and do next year.

Q. You obviously want things done right, [ ]but how much of a relief will it be when all this is over and you can just get back to concentrating solely on sport?

RORY McILROY: Yeah, for sure, I've obviously got people to handle that sort of stuff for me and I only see a fraction of it, the stuff that I really want to see. So, yeah, I've got people that are dealing with that. But again, it's something, as I said, it's something that shouldn't be in my mind. You know, it's something that I don't really think any athlete or anyone should ever go through. I've seen more lawyers offices and more lawyers this year than I care to see in my entire life. It's not something I ever want to go through again, and I'm making sure that I won't ever go through it again.

Q. Following on from that, can you think of a specific time this season when what was happening off the course, actually affected you on the golf course? Could that have been the case at Honda, for example?

RORY McILROY: Could be, yeah. I mean, there's no specific time where I said, I hit a bad shot because I was thinking of this. But as a golfer, you know, you want your mind as clear as possible, and it's obviously hard for that to happen if you've got other things that are going on that, firstly, you don't want to happen, and secondly you don't feel should be happening. It's been a distraction, but as I said, I've only seen a fraction of it, and I haven't had to deal with it as much as some of the guys around me. But it's something that I've obviously not wanted to have in my life.

Q. When you sorted out your driver in the summer it looked like you were going to come on; yet at Mission Hills I heard a fascinating exchange about the process of coming back to where you were before and you said it could take up to three months more. Why does it take so long now that you have your drive in place? What's missing? What do you need?

RORY McILROY: I guess it's the confidence of getting on a run of events where you're up there in contention each and every week. I mean, I think I started Korea in a way - but the likes of a World Golf Championships in Shanghai, you know, being up there, being disappointed with sixth; that's something that I'm used to feeling. I walk away in the middle of the season with an eighth place finish at the PGA and think that's progress, which it is. It's a good finish but finishing sixth in a World Golf Championships is disappointing. That's the sort of different mind set that I have and the different mind set that you need to go on and win those big tournaments. You can't settle for a sixth place; okay, it's a good finish and it's one of the best finishes of the year. It's not the level that you want to be at.

So it takes it - there's a whole process that you have to go through in terms of building your confidence back up and getting that mind set where, as I said, you finish a tournament and you're in contention and you don't quite pull it off and you're disappointed and it makes you hungrier to go on and try to win tournaments and win more. That's the process that I'm going through and I feel like I'm on that journey, and it might take me three months; it might take me less time, who knows. But I know that I'm on the right road and that's what I'm building towards.

Q. Would time management be the thing you've most learned from this year, and is there a specific example you could give during the year where your mind was too clouded by off course things?

RORY McILROY: I think I learned a bit more about time management last year. Last year was the first year where the demand on my time was, I guess it actually got to me a little bit. I said, well, you know, I have to remember what got me here in the first place was dedicating myself to my practice and working on my game and that's what got me to this position. Obviously the demands on your time are going to be more when you're winning tournaments and you're one of the best players in the game. I don't feel like the demands on my time were any less at this point than it was last year. But sometimes you have to say no. Sometimes you have to put yourself first and say, no, I need to do this for myself to maintain the level I am or try and get better.

It's something that Tiger actually told me last year. He said, you have to remember what got you here in the first place, and I think you guys know, Tiger, it's no 99 per cent of the time, which is a good thing. It's what he needs to do to be the player that he is, and to have the career that he's had. If that works for him, then that's great. I'd say I'm a little more forgiving with my time than that, but there still needs to be a point where you have to say no and look after yourself.

Q. We wish it was only 99 percent.

RORY McILROY: (Laughing).

Q. You mentioned Asia there a couple times. What is it about Asia that you think you play quite well there and made you come back on this year, both in . . . and you beat Tiger in that friendly. And second question: You've managed to stay motivated even through this adversity, which is good, congratulations, and people keep on supporting you. What do you think it is about you as a person and a player that people are still rooting for you and pushing for you know matter what?

RORY McILROY: I think Asia's important - obviously I've played well in Asia. I think for me, the reason is, it's our last stretch of the season, and you have a nice little bit of off time before it. So you can take a nice break and you can also build yourself back up for these last few weeks of the season. Everyone wants to finish the year strongly, no matter what sort of year you have. You look at someone like Adam Scott; he's won the Masters, he won a playoff event in America, he still wants to go down to Australia and win like he won the PGA last week. You want to finish well and you want to finish in style. I guess a little bit like what I did last year.

So Asia I think is an important place, and the growth of the game there, as well, is phenomenal. We are only going to start playing more in Asia the next few years because of how big the game is becoming over there. And of course, I feel I've always thrived on, call it adversity or whatever you want to call it; I think back to times when I lost the Masters and I had the collapse there and I came back and won the U.S. Open, because I wanted to prove to myself and prove to other people that that wasn't the real Rory McIlroy. That wasn't who I am and that's not the way I play under pressure. And then, you know, last year at the PGA, same sort of thing. Went through a little lull of three or four months, and people started to question things, and I like proving people wrong. It's something that I feel like I have to keep doing every year, and you know, hopefully I do that this year again, as well.

Q. I was just going to ask, how sweet would it be if you turn this around, would it be even sweeter than Congressional?

RORY McILROY: Yeah, I mean, if I'm standing is there with a green jacket the start of next year, then yes it would be even sweeter (smiling).


The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.