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March 10, 2020

Rory McIlroy

Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

MICHAEL BALIKER: It's a pleasure to welcome defending PLAYERS champion Rory McIlroy back to the interview room here at TPC Sawgrass. This is Rory's 11th PLAYERS appearance here this week, six starts so far this season, finished top 5 in all six, and enters the week third in the FedExCup standings. Rory, just to start out, no one has ever successfully defended THE PLAYERS. You have an opportunity to make history this week. Talk about the challenge ahead here at Sawgrass.

RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I guess there's -- if there's been no one to defend, it would be a nice time to start and have someone do that. But yeah, glad to be back.

Obviously this week last year was huge for me in terms of sort of getting the monkey off my back a little bit, and I had a few close calls, and I wasn't able to sort of walk through the door and claim a win, and then I was able to do it here and went on to have a great year and won a few more times. You know, it's nice to be back. I said this on Sunday at Bay Hill, a lot of similarities between this year and last year in terms of how I've played the first few events of the year, given myself some chances, haven't quite been able to capitalize, and yeah, obviously would be wonderful to replicate what happened last year.

MICHAEL BALIKER: And then just very briefly on last year coming down the stretch, being able to close out that tournament on the last few holes, starting with the putt there on 15. Kind of take us through that briefly.

RORY MCILROY: Yeah, yeah, obviously it was sort of -- holed a big putt on 12 for birdie and then another big putt on 15 after a great 6-iron. Yeah, I like big putts and I cannot lie (laughter), and I was happy to hole those two, and went on to win from there.

Q. You've talked a lot in the last year or so about concentrating on the process rather than the results, and I just wonder, you've been on such a great run this year with all these top 5s, at what point do you try to shift into more of a result mode, and how do you stave off being frustrated by fact that you're crossing the line probably as much as you think you ought to?
RORY MCILROY: I don't think you can ever go into result mode. I don't think that works. I don't think that helps anything. I think you just have to keep going about your business, doing your thing. I think the only way to not win is to concentrate on the results. So if I can just concentrate on what I'm doing and what I'm doing well, what I maybe need to improve on a little bit, just break the game down into different sections but really just try to make it as simple as possible, if I can do a few different things in my golf game just a little bit better, those thirds and fifths will hopefully turn into wins.

You know, I've had some really good success following this path that I'm on, and I'm just really trying to focus on doing the little things right, practicing good habits day in, day out, and if I keep doing those, then the byproduct is winning. Yeah, I definitely don't feel like I'm too far away.

Q. Just on the no one has defended here, what's your best guess as to why that might be, and do you look at it as, I guess, an opportunity?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, it is. It is an opportunity for sure. I don't think you ever need an extra motivation when you come to this golf tournament, but to be the first one to defend here would be very cool.

And I think this golf course can play so differently day-to-day, depending on wind direction, conditions. You know, it is such a cliché here, but it really doesn't suit any one style of play or any one type of player. Yeah, I don't know. I'm sure there's been people in the past that have had opportunities to maybe defend and have had their chances and finished well up there, but I don't know, I'd love to give myself a chance. If I can keep playing the way I've been playing and get myself into contention on Sunday, it would be something extra to play for, which would be pretty cool.

Q. You just mentioned, obviously, that it can be different. You were the first winner going back to bringing this back to March. What were the big takeaways, the difference from May to March?
RORY MCILROY: So for me two big things were, off the tee, the course plays a lot longer in March than it does in May, so I was able to hit driver a lot more. The fairways are a little softer, so the course plays a touch wider. And then I think the other thing is having the rough overseeded around the greens, that was a big thing for me because I've always been more comfortable chipping out of that sort of overseeded rough rather than a pure Bermuda. Pure Bermuda, especially in May time here, it was sort of a hit and hope. It was a little bit of a guessing game around the greens, where at least nowadays, if you do miss a green -- I said this last year and I said it about Jason Day, I played with Jason the final round last year, Jason has got a wonderful short game, and he can actually show what a wonderful short game he has in March here rather than in May, when if you miss greens, basically it's a leveler of everyone, where in March the guys with the best short games and the best techniques can sort of rise to the top a little bit.

Q. You've mentioned that Pete Dye courses were a little bit of an acquired taste for you. I wonder was there a turning point where you started to feel a little bit more comfortable, could have been Kiawah in 2014 or could have been -- you had three top 10s here in a row early on. When did you start turning the corner on that, and is there a hole out there that still kind of drives you nuts?
RORY MCILROY: So 2010 Whistling Straits was when I turned a corner. I turned up there, it was the PGA Championship, and I hated it. Like I really did not like it. I had to tell myself, look, you just need to like it for one week. Just get your head around liking this place for one week and embracing the fact that it's different and the fact that it's visually a little funky and whatever. I ended up finishing third that week and one shot out of a playoff, and I think that was when I sort of had turned a corner in terms of not necessarily loving Pete Dye golf courses because of -- I think he's a wonderful golf course designer, but I never liked how he made you feel on the golf course in terms of hiding things and angles, and it makes you a little bit uncomfortable, which is obviously his plan. Like he's a wonderful designer of golf courses, but that was the week where I had to embrace what Pete tried to put into his golf courses.

Yeah, going on from there, winning at Kiawah, winning at Crooked Stick, winning here, I've started to quite like them. But as you said, an acquired taste. They're like beer when you're younger. You sort of don't like it but then you think it's cool to drink it and then you sort of acquire a taste for it.

Q. Is there a hole that still gives you the most trouble or maybe makes you think the most?
RORY MCILROY: The first hole. The first hole to me is -- the fairway is over here, the tee box is over here, but the tee box is sort of parallel to the fairway, but you're having to hit across -- just angles and sort of -- you've really just got to pick targets and be very specific with what you're aiming at out here.

Q. You've had a lot of success here recently, but you actually missed your first three cuts here. What do you remember about your first impressions of this tournament, and I'm wondering what caused that change, whether it was more conservative or more aggressive strategy or just becoming a better player?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I think strategy was part of it. I was probably more stubborn back then than I am now and trying to overpower this golf course with a driver, when in May you couldn't do that. The first time I played here, the weekend before I was in Vegas for a fight and then probably didn't prepare the best way possible and missed the cut and ended up getting kicked out of bars in Jax Beach for having a fake ID. So I've come a long way. (Laughter.)

But yeah, I think just learning to play the golf course a little bit better, tempering my -- whatever that is, willingness to hit driver all the time. At least now in March I can hit driver a little bit more, but I had to learn to play the golf course the right way when it was back in May.

Q. Going back to what you were saying about process and so forth, I'm curious, do you view -- is there such a thing as a good top 5 or a bad top 5 in your view, and maybe if there's an example one way or the other you can think of?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I mean, I'd say last week was a bad top 5. I took advantage of a good draw. I got out early on Thursday morning and shot 66 and then sort of hung on for the rest of the week. And then there's other weeks where you just don't have it at all, and you hang in there and hang in there and you sort of just -- you struggle all week and you scrape it around in 70 or 69 or whatever it is for four days, and you end up finishing T5. I finished fifth at Torrey Pines last year, and I swear it was one of the best top 5s I've ever had. I walked away from that week just thinking I couldn't have squeezed anything more out of my golf game for the week. So yeah, there are such things as good and bad top 5s, and last week was probably on the bad end of the spectrum.

Q. Jon Rahm was in here earlier talking about his maturation process from age 22 to where he is now at age 25. Three years ago when I asked you about his meltdown here at THE PLAYERS, you had said he's going to be a generational talent, and when he can harness that passion that he has in a positive way, you're going to start to see some really good results. Do you see that happening, starting to happen now for Jon?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, a hundred percent. I mean, I don't -- even before the last couple of years. I mean, as soon as Jon came out, he was contending to win big events and playing great and obviously won at Torrey Pines, won in Europe. I mean, I think we all have to go through that process. Some of us it takes longer than others. But Jon, I think everyone could see as soon as Jon turned -- even before Jon turned pro when he was in college that he was -- the TaylorMade guys tell a story that they basically thought they signed a top-10 player in the world coming out of college. I mean, just shows you how highly they thought of him then.

But yeah, he's a wonderful player, and I think I said to you then, he can use his fieriness to his advantage, he just can't let it get him down and get on top of him. But he seems to be harnessing it pretty well at the minute, and he's not turned into a great player, because he always was a great player, but he's a hell of a player.

Q. As a follow-up to that, you've done it, Brooks has done it, Jordan Spieth has done it. You win that first major and it seems to catapult a little bit into the second major, third major, fourth major. Could you see that happening with Jon once he gets over the hurdle of winning that first one?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I think it just gives you belief. It gives you belief that you can do it on the biggest stage, and I think, you know, you're obviously playing well, and the majors are pretty -- they come pretty soon after one another, so if you get that first one and you're playing well, you get into that second one with a little more belief, and all of a sudden, boom, you're right back in there and you believe you can do it.

Yeah, I think not just with Jon but with anyone. Once you get over that hurdle, it should make the second one a bit easier, and then on from there.

Q. Can you give us some details on the bet today and how nervous were you?
RORY MCILROY: My bet? Which one? There was two.

Q. Okay, both.
RORY MCILROY: There was one with -- where's George? There you go. He bet me 50 bucks that I couldn't hit the green on 17, which was easy. That was an easy one. And then again, I have a bet with Harry every practice round about shooting a score, and yeah, Harry will be buying me dinner at some point this week. But yeah, my tee shot on 18 was a little too close to the water. But yeah, so I'll be enjoying a nice steak on him at some point.

Q. A little bit off the beaten path here, there are some really impressive Peloton metrics floating around online, and the rumor is they belong to you. I believe the one I saw was a 955 output in a 45-minute ride. First, can you confirm that that was you, and please do or my story is completely ruined. And second, has cycling become a big part of your fitness and workout regimen?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, so that was me. But I think the bike was a little juiced. (Laughter).

So I did that the Monday after Riviera in the hotel I was saying at in Santa Monica. So, like my bike at home, I can sort of get on the Peloton, and I can sit in the saddle at like a 50 resistance at like 90 -- like a 90 cadence and just sort of buying that out for 45 minutes or an hour, but 50 resistance on this bike felt really easy, so I sort of cranked it up. So I'd say that was a little juiced. But most of the ones are, on my Peloton user name or whatever, are pretty accurate. But yeah, I try to get them in sort of two or three times a week. I did one last night -- and I've never really enjoyed doing cardio, like really never liked it, but since sort of learning about Peloton and doing it and sort of being a part of that whole community and stuff, I've started to enjoy it, and I enjoy the leaderboard aspect and the fact that it is competitive in some ways and you're always trying to beat your last score. And it keeps me -- it makes me earn my dinners and sort of keeps me sort of in decent shape. I've been enjoying it.

Q. I've been talking to a lot of players about you, and aside from their envy of your ability to drive the ball a long way and your iron play and all that, the one dominant theme that they have is that they like the way that you seem to be leading and being comfortable with leading. Do you understand what they mean? And are you indeed as comfortable as they think you are with leading?
RORY MCILROY: Well, if they looked at the leaderboard the last few weeks they'd say that's not true.

Leading in terms of like --

Q. The game. Not on --
RORY MCILROY: I mean, I think at this point I think I have somewhat of a responsibility. Not just for myself but for the other players. I've been around the top of the game for a long time now, over a decade, and I think being at the age I am and being at the stage of life where -- I am very -- I'm a lot more comfortable in my own skin and in my own beliefs and values and convictions. So yeah, I have been outspoken about a number of issues in golf over the past couple years, and I'm happy about that, yeah. I'm not trying to lead so that people can -- I'm not trying to set some sort of example, but I guess I want to be a voice out there that can at least put forth some good commentary and a decent opinion on things, and that's what I try to do.

Q. Why are you so comfortable in your own skin now?
RORY MCILROY: I don't know. I think just because I've learnt over the last few years that you're not going to please everyone and you're not going to -- not everyone is going to like you. I think as you grow up, you sort of -- I certainly had an ambition or you try to do things for people and you try to -- I just basically learned no matter what you do, there's some people that are going to like you and appreciate what you do, and there's some people that you just won't be able to please. I think I came to terms with that a few years ago and am definitely a lot more comfortable in my own skin because of it.

Q. I've been sitting here looking at this photo, very nice photo of you taking a peek over at 17. Take me through what you were thinking at that point and what was that moment like?
RORY MCILROY: It was nice because I just hit a 9-iron into the 16th and had a 12-foot eagle putt, so I was feeling pretty good about myself. I always take a peek at sort of the group in front and seeing what they're doing or where they hit it into. Everyone knows where the hole location is on 17 here on Sunday, so it was just more having -- there's the two big boards there, as well, the two video boards, so looking at players' reactions and sort of the shots that they're hitting in.

Yeah, I wasn't thinking much. At that point I think I was tied for the lead, or no, maybe I was one ahead and Furyk had maybe just birdied the last. But knew that if I could birdie 16 and par the last couple that I'd be able to win. Yeah, that was really it.

Q. The question about Rahm made me think what a help it must have been, you were 22, I think, when you won at Congressional. For you and for people like Justin and Jordan to have kind of knocked it out at an early age, was it helpful, do you think, looking back, as you contemplate questions about Rahm, when he's going to win a major, Xander is going to fall into that, Rickie has been there for a few years. How much of a relief do you think it was?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I mean, it certainly is a relief whenever you can get one on the board early. It's helpful. But I mean, you think of Phil didn't win his first one until 33, 34, and it didn't hinder him. I mean, he ended up winning five, and people could say should have, could have won more, but he's still got a pretty impressive tally.

I don't think the likes of a Jon or a Xander or whoever else is in that category of great young players that haven't won one yet, my recommendation is not to let it affect you or listen to it. I mean, everyone is going to have chances, and it's not as if you -- we're all just trying to beat each other out here at the end of the day, and at one point or another, all of us have beaten one or another out here. So it's not -- if you can sort of try to take the importance of the occasion out of it and the trophy and the history and all that stuff, they've done it before.

Q. There was also 10 years of Phil getting asked when, four times a year.

Q. Wouldn't that add to the difficulty do you think, or no?
RORY MCILROY: I mean, you'd have to ask them or you'd have to ask him. I mean, I get it every April, and it certainly doesn't help things. But at least I only get it once a year, not four times a year.

But yeah, I mean, if you've had close calls -- all those guys are good enough to win major championships. I would think it's just a matter of time.

Q. We've got a question from a fan in China. Which hole is your favorite here at TPC Sawgrass and also on the 17th, how comfortable are you to avoid the water this week?
RORY MCILROY: My favorite hole, I'm a big fan of the new 12th hole here. I think they've done a good job with the redesign of that hole, risk-reward, you can go for the green, but if you miss it in the wrong spot, it can become very tricky. So I do like the 12th hole.

And yeah, I mean, look, I think the 17th is -- if you surrounded that green with bunker or grass or whatever, it would be one of the easiest par-3s that we play all year, but because of the water, there's just an extra element of difficulty to it. I think most guys are just trying to put it into the middle of the green. If you hit it close, that's a bonus, but you walk away with four 3s there for the week, you've done pretty well.

Q. I heard last week called the ultimate in survival golf. As a fan of the game, how often do you like to see that, and what are your expectations for scoring this week?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, so obviously the last two tournaments have been very difficult, and obviously I live very close to PGA National and people say to me, why don't you play this week, and I say, well, I don't get to spend that many weeks at home, and when I do, I'd like to enjoy it.

I think the last couple tournaments have been tough. It's been windy. The courses have got firm and fast, especially last week at Bay Hill.

And yeah, it's a different style of golf, right. It's more of a defensive mentality rather than an assertive, aggressive mentality of trying to go out and make birdies. You're having to play a little bit of chess and you're trying to put the ball in the right spot and hit it to 30 feet, two-putt, move to the next. It's a little more methodical, sort of takes a little bit of the flair away from it, I guess.

But I think every so often, that's a good thing. I think if every week was the same, it would be pretty boring, so I think to throw in weeks like last week, it keeps it interesting.

Q. What do you think this week?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, this week is not going to be like the last couple weeks. It's still pretty soft out there. The greens have the potential to get firm if the weather forecast stays the way it is, but I can't see the fairways getting overly bouncy and firm. It'll be a little more sort of target golf, I guess, but it has the potential to get a little firm over the weekend and the greens to get a bit of speed. But I certainly don't think you're going to see single digits under par winning this week.

Q. How proud are you of 100 total weeks at No. 1? Can you fathom 683? And how will you treat this stint differently to the last one?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, I'm very proud to think that I've spent two years of my career at the top of the World Rankings is a pretty nice feeling. 683 or whatever it is, I can't fathom. I mean, it's just -- it's unbelievable. I just don't think anyone can speak highly enough of what Tiger did over that stretch of golf. It was just insane.

And I'm -- this stretch now that I -- the way I got to No. 1 this time was sort of anticlimactic -- there wasn't much of a fanfare. I got there through a mathematical algorithm more than anything else, but I still made sure to celebrate it and celebrate the milestone. I hadn't been in this position for over four years, so on the Sunday night of Riviera, I went out and made sure to have a couple of drinks with Harry and a couple of my friends and sort of toast the fact that -- especially for Harry, too, Harry took over that caddie position in the middle of 2017 and basically we've been on that journey together from sort of injuries and not playing my best all the way back to the top of the world. So it was important for me to sit down and have a few drinks with him and be like, you know, we've done this, this was our journey and we did it, two guys that grew up in Holywood, Northern Ireland, playing golf together, and that we've done this is something that was really cool.

Q. You said at the weekend that you wish you could have converted one of the recent top 5 finishes you've had coming into this week. Is there one thing that you can pinpoint that has held you back from crossing the finish line so far this year?
RORY MCILROY: Yeah, just big numbers when I find myself in those positions. I made the triple bogey at Riviera early on Sunday, and I made the two double bogeys on the front nine last week. Just real untimely, poor shots. Not even poor shots but just -- like Riviera was very firm, as well, and if you missed it in the wrong spots, it got tricky, and I feel like that's what happened there and that's what happened at Bay Hill, as well. Especially on the par-5 sixth hole on Sunday, I hit a decent drive but didn't hold the fairway and tried to get the ball up as close as possible to the green so I had an easier third shot with the chip, and it went into the bunker and then I had a tricky shot. It was just -- maybe playing the percentages a little more if I had have made sure to stay short of that minute on 5 at Riviera, I wouldn't have brought 7 into play and then maybe staying short of that bunker on the 6th hole at Bay Hill last week, I wouldn't have brought the water into play with my next. So just those little things.

When the courses are playing that firm and that fast, those are the tiny little margins that make the difference. Yeah, so maybe just sort of dialing it back that five percent instead of trying to play the perfect shot to hit my next from, being okay with the 80-yard shot into the par-5 or the 40-foot putt below the hole. They're the things that make the difference, I guess.

Q. Did Fallon put you up to the whole "I like big putts" line, and second question, this is an Olympic year, and some of the courses that -- you're the reigning champion here, Augusta is Augusta, and then you've also won at Harding Park. How did you physically prepare yourself for this year and describe your process for getting ready for six straight months of marquee tournaments?
RORY MCILROY: No, Jimmy didn't, no. I don't think Jimmy even could have came up with that line. Yeah, I mean, preparing physically, I don't think that's the challenge for me. It's more mentally preparing yourself for going back to defend here. I think the nice thing is going back to places that you've had success on before, coming back here, going back to Harding Park. You know, I think at this point in my career, I said earlier, I've spent over a decade in this position, so there's not much that's new to me anymore in the game of golf, but this year the Olympics will be. I've never got to experience anything like that, and that's a really cool thing. 12 or 13 years into a professional career and you get to do something for the first time again, that's pretty exciting.

MICHAEL BALIKER: And your relationship with Optum and having won this tournament last year, what did that mean from that perspective?

RORY MCILROY: It was certainly a nice way to kick the partnership off, that's for sure. But yeah, it was -- yeah, obviously Optum are a huge partner of the PGA TOUR and myself, and yeah, it was great to win in front of them and obviously kick off the relationship in style, and they threw me a nice little party at the end. Hopefully we can get together on Sunday night again and do the same thing.

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