Rory McIlroy concedes he cannot use his unease at playing without crowds as an excuse as he looks to end his lengthy major drought in the US PGA Championship.
McIlroy has struggled to perform to his best in the PGA Tour’s fan-free environment since it returned in June, recording a best finish of 11th in five events since the restart.
That contrasts sharply with his form before the sport was forced to shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the four-time major winner finishing third in the Farmers Insurance Open and then fifth in each of his next three starts.
McIlroy admits he has found it “easy to lose focus” without the noise and excitement generated by spectators but is hoping memories of his 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play victory at this week’s venue of Harding Park will work in his favour.
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“Obviously it isn’t new to us at this point. We’ve been back playing on Tour for the last eight or nine weeks or whatever it is,” McIlroy said.
“I’ve found myself looking at leaderboards a little more just to see where I am on there and see where other people are. There’s no feedback from anywhere else; there’s even no scoreboard holders, so you don’t even know how the guys in your group are doing, (but) at this point we should all be used to it.
“We all wish that we were playing in front of fans and have it feel like a real major championship, but I think we’re just lucky that we’re able to play golf tournaments at this point.
“For me personally, it’s just taken a little while to get used to that. It’s five tournaments in, I should be pretty much adapted to it now. If having to play golf without fans, if that’s in the forefront of my mind as one of my biggest concerns, then everything is okay.”
McIlroy’s last major victory came in the 2014 US PGA Championship at Valhalla, since when he has recorded 10 top-10 finishes in the game’s four biggest events.
Asked if a lack of victories in the majors weighed on him, McIlroy added: “It doesn’t keep me up at night and I don’t think about it every day, but when I play these major championships it’s something that I’m obviously reminded of.
“I would have liked to have won a couple more majors in that time frame, and I feel like I’ve had a couple of decent chances to see do so and I just haven’t got the job done.
“But the good thing is we have at least three opportunities this year, and then hopefully if things normalise going forward, four opportunities. So we’re playing seven major championships in the next 12 months basically. I’ve got plenty of opportunities coming my way.”
McIlroy’s patchy recent form was perfectly summed up by his scores in the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational last week, the 31-year-old shooting 73-66-73-67 to finish in a tie for 47th.
“There’s been good scores in there,” McIlroy added. “I shot a 63 at Colonial, a 65 to make the cut at Hilton Head, a 63 at Travelers, a couple of good scores last week in Memphis. So the good stuff is in there, it’s just the sharpness and being efficient with my scoring.
“I’m driving it well. My iron play is good for the most part. It’s just getting that key up-and-down to keep momentum going, holing a putt here or there to keep the round going for the day.
“Even the mediocre scores that I’ve shot I’ve come off the golf course thinking, well, I actually didn’t play too badly, I just didn’t get a lot out of the round.
At this week's PGA Championship, FedExCup leader and World No. 1 Justin Thomas looks to become the first player since Rory McIlroy (2014 PGA Championship) to win a major after winning on TOUR the week prior.
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“If I can just keep playing like that and keep being a little bit more efficient with my scoring, I’ll be right where I need to be.”
McIlroy won seven straight matches at Harding Park in 2015 to lift the Match Play title and although the course set up and routing will be slightly different, such good memories can only be a plus for the world number three.
“I think if I remember anything about the week is that I played well when I needed to and I hit good shots at the right times, and that’s sort of what you need to do in match play,” he added.
“It’s nice to have some memories around a golf course that you’re playing a major championship on. It’s nice to have those memories and be able to recall some of the shots that you’ve hit.
“Hopefully some of that can help me this week and can rekindle that sort of form that helped me win here a few years ago.”