Return to Quail Hollow is just what Rory McIlroy needs to break out of slump

Rory McIlroy, a two-time champion at Quail Hollow and owner of the course record, is back this week and trying to snap a lengthy winless drought

Oh, it feels good to be back in friendly territory.

Rory McIlroy is in the field this week at Quail Hollow for the Wells Fargo Championship, a tournament where he can’t help but have happy memories. In 2010, a fresh-faced, curly-haired McIlroy made the cut on the number before a spectacular 10-under 62 in the final round found him four shots clear of the field on Sunday. He was still two days short of his 21st birthday and already a champion on the PGA Tour.

His red-hot final round remained the course record for five years until he broke it in 2015 with a 61 on Saturday on his way to a tournament-record 21-under finish and a seven-shot victory. He also lost in a playoff to Rickie Fowler here in 2012.

More than a decade after that breakthrough win, McIlroy is back in Charlotte after turning 32 on Tuesday and looking to recapture the magic he had those weeks. He’s currently trapped in one of the biggest slumps of his career. He hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in 26 straight events dating back to the WGC-HSBC Champions in November 2019, his longest drought since he snapped a 27-event drought at the 2014 Open Championship. Last month, he took his seventh attempt to win the Masters and complete the career Grand Slam; instead, he missed the cut and went searching for answers.

Rory McIlroy is ready to break out of his slump

He believes he’s found them in coach Pete Cowen. McIlroy and Cowen have been working together back home in Florida since the Masters, trying to find what he does well again. He admitted in March that seeing Bryson DeChambeau’s smashing drives got into his head. He tried to chase distance to catch up, and it ruined his swing. Cowen’s job is to fix it, and, so far at least, McIlroy believes he’s on the right track.

“It feels good. It’s all familiar feelings. It’s all stuff that I’ve worked on before, but maybe just gotten away from a little bit by trying to focus on other things. I feel like I’m on a pretty good trajectory at the minute,” he said on Wednesday at his pre-tournament press conference.

“I feel better about my game than I did flying home from Augusta on Friday night, put it that way. I’ve worked a little bit on it, sort of just tried to understand what I do well. I guess trying to sort of focus on my strengths. I think I’ve neglected my strengths a little bit the past couple of months.”

Maybe it’s the absence of large galleries, the three-month pandemic layoff last year, or trying to keep up with DeChambeau, but McIlroy has appeared lost and unfocused on the golf course in 2021. In 2019, he led the tour in Total Strokes Gained; this year, he’s 21st. He’s dropped to 15th in the world rankings, his lowest since 2009. When the PGA Tour went on hiatus last March, he was No. 1.

Part of it has to do with what’s happened off the course. McIlroy is no longer the kid he was in 2010. He’s a husband and father to a seven-month-old daughter. He’s chairman of the Players Advisory Council. And he spent a good portion of his media availability on Wednesday fielding questions about the golf “super league” that’s scheduled to begin play in 2022. McIlroy’s attention can’t be solely on his golf game as it once was.

But there’s still time for the birthday boy. McIlroy, at 32, is just now entering the time when golfers are historically in their prime. Phil Mickelson won 23 times after turning 32, including all five of his major championships. Dustin Johnson has 14 wins and a Masters title since he was that age. Ben Hogan won all nine of his majors after the age of 34.

McIlroy may have been surpassed the past few months by a young crop of players like DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa, and Jon Rahm. He’s still far from done, though, and a good place to start showing he still has plenty of good years left is right here at Quail Hollow. Those two remarkable weeks was a long time ago and in another stage of his life, but good memories can do him some good at a place he’s had so much success at before.