PITTSFORD — Oak Hill Country Club made a favorable first impression on Rory McIlroy.
The world’s second-ranked golfer was in town Monday for a news conference to promote the 95th PGA Championship, at which he’ll be the defending champion come August.
Before conducting a wide-ranging interview that lasted more than an hour, McIlroy got to experience the famed East Course. Teeing off at 7:45 a.m., he played 18 holes in a group that included Craig Harmon, head PGA professional at Oak Hill, and Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America.
“When I think of the PGA Championship, I think of golf courses like this. Tree-lined, classic golf courses, and this is one of them,” McIlroy said after carding a round of 3-under 67.
Consider Monday a geography lesson for McIlroy — on and off the course.
His knowledge of the Rochester area was admittedly limited – “I knew it was sort of right on the border with Canada” – as was his insight on the course. He had seen only brief video clips of the 1995 Ryder Cup and 2003 PGA Championship played at Oak Hill.
“I didn’t really know much about the course until today, but from what I saw, I really liked it,” he said. “This course is timeless. It was obviously a fantastic golf course 50, 60 years ago, and it’s a fantastic golf course now. It’s not overly long by today’s standards, but you have to drive the ball very, very well. It gives you opportunities to score, but then you’ve got some holes coming in that are very tough.”
Last year in his record-setting victory at Kiawah Island, McIlroy played only 18 practice holes, so he’s matched that number already at Oak Hill. Not that that’s much of a worry for him.
“When you’ve only seen the golf course once, I guess you don’t really know where the trouble is,” he said. “Sometimes I think you can go into too much detail when you’re trying to see a golf course. All you’re thinking about then is the trouble and where not to hit it, instead of where you want to hit the ball.”
McIlroy considered holes 12 through 14 prime scoring opportunities, and he took advantage Monday, including when he holed out from about 50 yards on the par-4 14th for eagle. He followed that up with a birdie on the difficult par-3 15th to put “2-2” down on the scorecard.
“It was a nice little stretch to the round,” he said. “If you keep your ball in the fairway here, you’ve got chances to score, but if you don’t and you hit it into that four-inch thick rough, you’re going to struggle to even get it to the green, let alone control your ball to try and get it close to the pin. The real challenge here is taking your opportunities when they come along and limiting the damage if you do hit it into the trees and the rough.”
The 24-year-old Northern Irishman was fresh off an uninspired tie for 57th over the weekend in the Memorial Tournament. While he does have four top-10 finishes on the year, he’s held to a different standard.
Going without a win so far, being ranked 122nd in strokes gained putting and walking off the course in March at the Honda Classic in the midst of a poor round are a few of the reasons McIlroy said it’s been “a little bit of a frustrating year.”
He insisted, though, that his game was not far away from the form that’s made him a two-time major champion.
“I’m getting there. It feels very close, it really does,” he said. “I feel like it’s one of these years where I’m just waiting for one week when it just all clicks together and then I can get on a run. I’ve had a couple of chances to win this year and I haven’t taken them. I’ve had a few indifferent performances as well. I feel good going into the second major of the year.”
Before McIlroy returns to Rochester to defend his title, he’ll give chase to his third major championship in three years – first in the U.S. Open next week at Merion outside Philadelphia, then next month in the Open Championship at Muirfield. McIlroy left Rochester Monday night and will play practice rounds at Merion today and Wednesday.
“I think great players are defined by their major victories,” he said in response to a question about his legacy. “I guess I’ve got off to a good start winning two pretty early in my career, and I want to just try to keep that going.”
Asking a 24-year-old about his legacy is like asking what a person bowled after their first frame, but the question spoke to the potential – and expectations – McIlroy carries.
Dressed in a red Nike golf shirt, McIlroy was asked about the rivalry he has with the player more well known for that attire, Tiger Woods.
“I’ve played with him quite a bit over the past 12 months and his game is there. He’s playing very, very well,” McIlroy said. “We both sort of struggled last week at Memorial, but that’s just the way golf is. You have weeks like that sometimes.
“People always ask about this rivalry, and I always answer: ‘He’s got 76 or 77 PGA Tour wins; I have six. He’s got 14 majors and I’ve got two.’ That’s not much of a rivalry there. I need to start winning a lot and regularly and win a few more majors if I want to even try and call whatever this is a rivalry.”
McIlory was at ease Monday talking about everything from whether he’s been to Niagara Falls (not yet, but he hopes to in August), what his favorite movie is (“Anchorman”) and what his golf superstitions are (using a pair of ballmarkers given to him by his parents, and girlfriend, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki).
When asked whether Wozniacki was still the No. 1-ranked player in the world, McIlroy joked, “She was. We’re two former No. 1s. We’re still living off that.”
His quick wit was also on display when asked who his favorite female athlete is.
“I met Lindsey Vonn yesterday,” he said, referring to the U.S. skier who happens to be Woods’ girlfriend, before making sure everyone knew it was Wozniacki.
McIlroy was joined by his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, and father, Gerry, during Monday’s round. The elder McIlory has witnessed both of his son’s major victories, and the two share an incredibly close bond.
If Gerry sees No. 3 in August, McIlroy will become the first player since Woods in 2006-07 – and only the sixth ever – to repeat as PGA champion.
“It’s no surprise that he is the only guy that’s done it” recently, McIlory said of Woods. “Come here in August he’s obviously going to be a factor too, but it’d be nice to go along side him and try and defend this trophy.”