Rory McIlroy caught his first glimpse of the Oak Hill Country Club course where he'll defend his PGA Championship title in August and he liked what he saw.
"When I think of the PGA Championship, I think of courses like this. This course is timeless," McIlroy said yesterday after shooting 67 on a practice round. "It's not only long, but it's hard to drive the ball well. You've got some chances out there.
"Then again, you've got a tough finish."
The 24-year-old Northern Irishman, also the 2011 US Open champion, has had a fairly rough year so far. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, lost in the opening round of the Match Play Championship and walked out of the second round at the Honda Classic in a display of utter frustration.
His game has since begun to slowly turn around, and, although he has yet to win this year and has been replaced at No1 in the world rankings by Tiger Woods, McIlroy has four top 10 finishes in nine starts as the US Open looms in two weeks.
Like Woods, McIlroy was never a factor in the Memorial, but he felt as if he had ironed out some problems after closing with a 72, two shots ahead of Woods at 294. Matt Kuchar won with a 12-under 276.
"I feel good going into the second major of the year. It feels very close," said McIlroy, who tied for 25th at the Masters with a 2-over 290. "I feel like it's one of these years where I can get on a run. I've had a couple of chances to win this year and I haven't taken them."
Repeating as champion and taking home the Wanamaker Trophy is always a stiff challenge at the PGA Championship. Only five players have accomplished the feat.
Tiger Woods did it twice (1999- 2000 and 2006-07), joining Denny Shute (1936-37), Leo Diegel (1928-29), Gene Sarazen (1922-23), and Walter Hagen (1924-27).
"I don't know why people have struggled to defend," McIlroy said.
"I guess it must be the strength of the field. Come August, it's going to be a factor, too."
Even though 99 of the top 100 players in the world rankings competed last year at Kiawah Island, McIlroy staged a personal clinic. He validated his record eight-shot victory in the US Open at Congressional by blowing away the field at the 2012 PGA Championship, also by a record eight shots. That back-nine collapse at the 2011 Masters was beginning to fade as McIlroy became the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros to win two majors. Woods was about four months older when he won his second major.
"Great players are defined by their major victories," McIlroy said. "Whenever you think about a golf legacy, you think about the majors. I guess I got off to a good start."
McIlroy grinned sheepishly during his appearance when the moderator pointed out that he had 1.6 million followers on Twitter compared to 495,000 for his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. Seemingly forgotten now were the questions that had swirled last year that the romance was hurting his game after he missed four cuts in five tournaments.
McIlroy conceded before the Masters that the adjustment to new clubs - part of a huge endorsement deal with Nike - had taken some time. But his driving has improved along with his confidence. He said this year is different, despite what the leaderboard says.
"I'm in a better place," he said. "I wasn't showing many real signs of promise for a couple of months. This year there are signs. Last year, it was at the point I didn't know if I'd ever play well again."