PITTSFORD, N.Y. — About six weeks ago — that is, a missed Masters Tournament cut, a self-imposed hiatus and a tie for 47th at the Wells Fargo Championship ago — Rory McIlroy talked about pies. Back then, he appeared ready to win big again and exuded as much as confidence as you did before your Thanksgiving dessert became a fire hazard.
“I’ve got all the ingredients to make the pie,” McIlroy said at Augusta National Golf Club, where his quest to complete the career Grand Slam would stall again. “It’s just putting all those ingredients in and setting the oven to the right temperature and letting it all sort of come to fruition.”
This week’s P.G.A. Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, the second major tournament of the year, cannot elevate him into the Grand Slam fraternity since he has won the event twice. But a victory or a strong showing would quiet the doubts that have arisen around McIlroy, who is No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking but perpetually shadowed by his failure to capture a major championship since 2014. The skepticism has only sharpened in 2023, which began with a win in Dubai but has subsequently toggled between admirable outings and head-spinning letdowns.
Despite his membership at Oak Hill, McIlroy has been reluctant to declare some sort of home-course advantage since he, after all, lives in Florida. He understands well that his prospects hinge not on a throng of well-wishers but, in part, on whether he can adequately stamp out the harsh distractions: the critics, the history, the noise surrounding his place as arguably the PGA Tour’s leading spokesman in an era of tumult in professional golf.
On Tuesday, he seemingly wanted nothing to do with the uncertainty the sport (“I don’t have a crystal ball” was his six-word response to a 34-word question). Nor did he want to dwell on whether his break after the Masters had worked. (“I don’t know,” he replied. “I needed it at the time. Whether it works this week or not remains to be seen.”)
But, perhaps more revealing, he was also a top-tier athlete openly copping to the sense that he needed to play with fewer expectations instead of more. The bravado was measured, the confidence present without being stifling or sanctimonious.
“It wasn’t really the performance of Augusta that’s hard to get over, it’s just more the — it’s the mental aspect and the deflation of it and sort of trying to get your mind in the right place to start going forward again, I guess,” he said. Later, he added that he was simply “trying to go out there, play a good first hole of the tournament, and then once I do that, try to play a second good hole and just sort of go from there.”
He may be able to ascertain his prospects quickly since his swing has been a subject of heightened concern in his circle in recent weeks. His troubles — “club face was getting a bit too open on the way back, really struggling to square it on the way down, and then sort of re-closure was getting a little too fast,” as he summarized them Tuesday — are the kind of pinpoint problems that would go unnoticed, or at least unfixed, on most driving ranges.
At a forum like the P.G.A. Championship, those travails separate the elite from the crowd of also-rans that will be thick since the field includes 156 players. McIlroy, who noted that the precise timing of a swing can be the difference between a ball rocketing 20 yards to the left or 20 yards to the right, has hardly dawdled on his pursuit of a fix. A four-time major tournament winner, McIlroy spent last week with his coach in Florida, eschewing the FaceTime analyses that undergird plenty of modern professional careers.
McIlroy is finessing, not overhauling, insistent that there is “nothing drastic that I need to change.” Perhaps he is right, because golf delights and betrays with only so much warning: Jon Rahm’s March included a tie for 39th, a withdrawal from a tournament and then a tie for 31st. Then came April and a Masters green jacket.
“It’s ups and downs,” Rahm said on Tuesday as he broadly contemplated the challenge of sustaining success in sports, especially one as fickle as golf.
“Even Tiger had downs,” he said later, referring to Tiger Woods, the 15-time major tournament winner. “Maybe his downs were shorter, maybe his downs were different in his mind, but everybody had them. It is part of sports. I’m hoping — I guess as a player you’ve got to hope that your low is not as low as others’.”
McIlroy has not missed two major cuts in a calendar year since 2016, and he has not missed consecutive major cuts since 2010. His recipe this week to avoid a return to that dark era, beyond an adjusted swing and a clearer mind, will rely on discipline and patience and detours around the course’s 78 bunkers.
He is sure, more humbly this time, that he is close to a breakthrough.
“If I can execute the way that I feel like I can, then I still believe that I’m one of the best players in the world and I can produce good golf to have a chance of winning this week,” he said.
But he is past, he suggested, being defined by one scorecard or another, past the need for the ferocious mind-set that propelled him to his last P.G.A. Championship victory, in 2014.
“If I don’t win another tournament for the rest of my career, I still see my career as a success,” McIlroy said. “I still stand up here as a successful person in my eyes. That’s what defines that.”
He would not, however, mind finishing up that pie.