SANDWICH, England – A late-afternoon tee time and empty golf course are ingredients for an enjoyable respite from life’s hectic pace. That’s what made Monday’s round so special for Rory McIlroy. He and his father, Gerry, teed off about 7 p.m. on the famed links of Royal County Down, a nice conclusion to McIlroy’s three-week break since winning the U.S. Open.
“It was a really nice moment,” McIlroy said.
After that relaxing round, McIlroy arrived at Royal St. George’s as the Open Championship favorite and center of attention. Tuesday was the first time we’ve seen him at a tournament since he lifted the U.S. Open trophy more than three weeks ago. He’ll tee off at 9:09 a.m. Thursday with Rickie Fowler and Ernie Els, the 2002 British Open champion.
Taking such a long break may be a unique way to prepare for one of golf’s Grand Slam events – some players, including the defending Open champion, used a tournament thousands of miles from here for a warm-up – but it’s not unprecedented.
McIlroy’s simple approach to the golf swing makes it easier to return to form. He and his lifelong coach, Michael Bannon, have always focused on little more than the fundamentals. For McIlroy, finding that flowing swing is like riding a bike, not a unicycle.
The time off was a necessity. The past three weeks weren’t all rest and relaxation.
“The first 10 days after winning the U.S. Open, it was a bit hectic trying to see everyone, going here, there and everywhere,” McIlroy said. “But the last 10 days have been good. I’ve gotten back to my routine, been practicing a lot.
“I’ve already sort of noticed over the past three weeks, it has been a bit of a life-changing experience, and it’s just something I’m going to have to deal with.”
McIlroy also took a three-week break before this year’s Masters. “And shot three pretty good scores there,” he said. The emphasis on his final-round 80 there has been lessened by his U.S. Open victory.
The Masters was where he learned the final lesson that allowed his game to culminate at Congressional.
McIlroy held the first-round lead at last year’s British Open, his 63 matching the lowest score ever shot at a major. Last year’s Open was the first of four consecutive majors that McIlroy led at some point. The U.S. Open was the first he won.
“Now I feel like … I’ve basically learned most of the lessons that I needed to learn to get me over the line, especially in a major championship,” he said. “Now that I’ve done that, I feel as if I’ll be able to go on and contend a lot more.”
He’s not the only one that feels that way. The combination of his dominance and demeanor led many to anoint McIlroy as golf’s next great (we’ll debate the merits of that another time). McIlroy said that, for all the hyperbole and heightened expectations that came in the aftermath of his Open win, no one will expect more of McIlroy than himself.
“They can say what they want, they can make the comparisons,” he said. “All I need to do is focus on my game, and if I can do that, I know my good golf is good enough to win plenty more tournaments.”