Rory McIlroy was talking numbers. On the eve of what will be his 12th attempt to win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the Northern Irishman was expanding on his goals for 2022. Gone are the Januarys, by the way, when he would scribble those ambitions on his airline boarding pass en route to the Middle East. Instead, he now uses a journal.
He’s even more specific these days, too. Where once McIlroy would focus on, say, multiple tournament victories, Major wins and season-long baubles like the Race to Dubai and the FedEx Cup, he is now more of a process guy. He still wants to do all of the above – he’s never won more than five times in a calendar year – but it’s now more about “how” than “when”.
“Those things are great goals, and they are things to try to work towards. But I think the biggest thing for guys that at the level that we’re at is I want to hit over 60 percent of my fairways. I want my proximity inside 150 yards to be a certain number. I want my strokes gained/putting to be a certain number. I think having goals that are more objective and more that I’m in control of, so I can’t control if I win five or six times a year, [is best]. There’s so many other variables in there.
“But I can certainly control if I hit 60 percent of the fairways,” he continued. “I can control if my numbers, my strokes-gained numbers, my stats are better than they were the year before. So it’s about trying to set yourself for goals that you can control, and that are objective and measurable. I guess those are the sort of goals I’ve started to set for myself.”
The obvious question followed: what stat is most important right now?
“There’s a few. I’d love to get my iron play back to a level that it was at maybe a few years ago. You know, gaining at least half a shot to a full shot on the field with approach play. I’ve done that before, I feel like I can do that again. But the fairways-hit stat is always a big one for me. If I can hit the ball in the fairway 60 percent of the time with how far that I hit it, I’m going to create a lot of opportunities for myself. Some weeks the putts will fall, some weeks they won’t. But I think over the past few years I’ve become a more consistent putter. I hole what I feel is my fair share.”
What isn’t going to happen is a repeat of the mistake McIlroy made in the wake of Bryson DeChambeau redefining driving distances. So there will be no searching for extra – and needless – metres. Last year, McIlroy ranked second in driving distance on the PGA Tour with an average of 292.0 metres (319.3 yards).
“My goal of hitting more fairways might mean throttling back and hitting 3-wood a little more often,” he said. “Or hitting clubs that are maybe not as aggressive in order to just put myself in the fairway. Maybe just being a little bit more of a measured and a controlled golfer. I’ll certainly pick-and-choose my spots where I can take advantage of the driver. But the best player of the past 30 years, Tiger, picked and chose where he hit driver. He played a very controlled game. And it didn’t work out too badly for him.”
As ever with McIlroy, he wasn’t done analysing the concept of improvement and achievement at the highest level of the sport that has consumed his life. Asked to compare his present self with the 19-year old who turned professional in 2008, he was typically thoughtful.
“I think we all lose a bit of our naivete as we get older,” he said. “You become a little more cynical. Wisdom comes with a little bit of that at times. Maybe my view of the world isn’t quite as rosy as it was back in 2008. I certainly wouldn’t trade places with that guy. The past 13-14 years have been a dream. I know I keep saying that, but I live my dream for a living. I certainly wouldn’t trade places with him.
“There have been times when, if you achieve what you want to achieve, it isn’t quite what you expected,” he continued. “A lot of high-performers have felt that, I think. You get to the top of whatever mountain you wanted to get to the top of and think, ‘Is this it?’ You don’t feel any different. You’re not a different person. So you have to re-set your goals and perceive in a different way what success means to you.”
And did he have an example to back up his thesis? Of course he did. Forever reflective, this is a man who has had more than a few moments of epiphany. Although, as he was quick to admit, his wife occasionally has to scold him over his dishwasher-loading technique. Just because he “has a few trophies in the cabinet” doesn’t make him any different from millions of husbands around the world.
“I remember when I got to world No.1,” he went on. “That night I was thinking, ‘Is this it?’ I thought I was going to feel different. But it wasn’t. I still got up the next morning and brushed my teeth like everyone else. It’s about trying to find the joy in what you do. And I’ve done that better over the past year or so. I’ve found the joy in just playing golf. So when you talk about motivation, that’s the sweet spot. You just want to go out there and play as best you can. That’s what gives you the motivation and the optimism.”
An abundance of God-given talent doesn’t hurt either, of course.
PHOTO: Oisin Keniry