KAPALUA, Hawaii – Rory McIlroy stood tall just a few minutes removed from his final round at the Tournament of Champions.
His words and posture were optimistic, demeanor and tone more neutral. After a 2018 season defined by close calls, McIlroy began the new year with another disappointing final round at Kapalua’s Plantation Course.
“I hit good putts. I hit good shots. Just one of those days where it didn’t happen,” McIlroy said. “My attitude was much better. I didn’t press at all. I was very patient. Just something I’m going to have to persist with. Just keep putting myself in these positions. Honestly, I don’t think anyone could have lived with (winner Xander Schauffele) … Obviously could have shot a better score, but I did what I wanted to do.”
McIlroy entered the final round three shots back of Gary Woodland in the final pairing and finished T-4, eight shots behind Schauffele, who would have been tough to catch after an 11-under 62.
It’s just that McIlroy didn’t look capable of catching anyone amid an underwhelming 1-under 72.
He was in Hawaii thanks to last year’s win at Bay Hill, where a final-round 64 was best in show by three shots. That remains his lone Tour win since the 2016 Tour Championship. A series of runner-up finishes and letdown Sundays, most notably a 2-over 74 in the final group at the 2018 Masters, proved puzzling.
Can McIlroy get his mojo back in 2019?
He won at such a tremendous clip at an early age from 2011-14, racking up four major victories in the process, it seemed he was poised to dominate for a decade.
“It felt like, OK, this is what I’m supposed to do,” McIlroy said. “Fast forward a couple of years and I have still had some wins, I still had seven wins since then, but they were coming thick and fast and regularly, and that’s obviously a place that I would love to get back to.”
McIlroy did a lot of video work this offseason, spending time indoors hitting balls into a net and not really caring about the ball flight. Getting into good positions and moving the club more fluently was the focus.
He started the year with a new driver, putter and golf ball, and he did show a lot of promising signs in Hawaii.
We can see it with our own eyes thanks to the televised shot tracer, the different shapes and angles on tee shots. McIlroy was a walking testament to the technology in Maui, where he hit a spectacular variety of shots. Low stingers, high fades, baby draws – all were in play and suggest McIlroy can get even better with the driver after finishing sixth in strokes gained off the tee at 0.761 last season.
He gained 1.185 strokes off the tee at the Tournament of Champions. Problem is, he couldn’t take advantage of those picture-perfect drives often enough. The wedges are a little off yardage-wise, the chipping isn’t leading to good-enough birdie looks and putting has generally been his biggest weakness.
McIlroy cited driving accuracy as one of his biggest concerns a year ago, and he needed to put a stock fairway-finder in the arsenal. He worked with TaylorMade on a new M5 driver that would help him accomplish that and seems comfortable after all the offseason reps.
“I realized last year that I’ve got enough distance,” McIlroy said. “That’s when I started to hit these shots that I know are going to hit the fairway and are going to get in play. Having a driver with a little more spin where you can launch it lower and it holds its line in that trajectory is something I’ve wanted a little bit more, and that’s what the guys built me.”
If confidence has dwindled, you won’t hear it from the 29-year-old Irishman. He let some frustration show and said he was tired of second-place finishes last year. That’s probably why he started pressing in a few final rounds, trying to force the issue rather than letting it happen naturally, as it did in the final round at Bay Hill.
“I feel like I learned a lot from last year,” McIlroy said.
We’ll see a lot of McIlroy in the states this year, where he plans to remain more often now that he’s a permanent resident. He wants to play one more event before the Genesis Open in mid-February, having yet to pick among Torrey Pines, TPC Scottsdale or Pebble Beach.
It might have looked like the same old story in Maui, but there were plenty of new pieces with the swing and in the bag. Whether or not it leads to more victories this year remains to be seen.
“I think I showed a little more versatility in my game. I was hitting different shots,” McIlroy said. “Overall (it was) a positive week, even though I wish I would have played a little better (Sunday).” Gwk