KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The pudgy face is gone. So too is the curly hair sticking out from beneath an odd-looking cap. Now, the look is more mature, one of a husband and father, someone whose priorities have evolved.
After all these years, Rory McIlroy returns to the same place, but he arrives very different. Nine years ago, he came to the Ocean Course and romped to an 8-stroke victory at the PGA Championship for his second major title. He won four majors in a four-year span, including two in a row — the Open Championship and PGA Championship — in 2014.
Since then, his performances in golf’s biggest events have not been what he hoped, not what others expected.
But McIlroy, 32, returns to the shores of the Atlantic in search of that elusive fifth major title with a boost of confidence after having won the Wells Fargo Championship on May 9 for his 19th PGA Tour title.
“I’ll be able to poke holes in everything that I did, it’s certainly far from perfect,” McIlroy said after his win. “But this one is validation that I’m on the right track.”
How did he finally turn the corner? Perhaps that answer lies in famed swing coach Pete Cowen.
McIlroy added Cowen to his team in late March. McIlroy didn’t ditch Michael Bannon, his longtime coach from Northern Ireland. He simply wanted another set of eyes.
Before the addition, McIlroy sought advice from Cowen at both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship, where he missed the cut. Two weeks prior to the Masters, he made it official with Cowen joining the team. Then, McIlroy promptly missed the cut at Augusta National.
It was a lengthy drought in which McIlroy failed to win since November 2019. He slipped from No. 1 in the world to No. 15, a 12-year low.
“We all know his strengths and weaknesses,” said veteran European Tour player and 2014 Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. “His wedge play has got to improve. Nowadays with Trackman and the instant feedback you get, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be an excellent wedge player. That’s where I’d like to see Rory spend more time, working on his wedges.
“And I’m presuming his bringing on Pete Cowen is more about inspiration.”
Cowen, who toiled on the European Tour for a spell, runs a golf academy in South Yorkshire, England, as well as three in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He has put together a small stable of professional players, and has a few major champions among those he helps, most notably Henrik Stenson.
Cowen is known as a coach who doesn’t mind getting in the dirt with his players. He’ll show them shots, work out techniques and talk a good game, too. He’s not into making wholesale changes, simply looking at making improvements.
“It sounds like maybe [Rory] and Michael were getting a little too over technical because they weren’t seeing another enough and they were trying to pack in too much into one go when they did get together because of the way travel is,” said Graeme McDowell, who has also worked with Cowen. “Pete might just help free up and help him play golf. That could be advantageous too for him.”
McIlroy decided to bring Cowen on because his form had dipped noticeably since the return to golf last June following the COVID-19 shutdown. McIlroy was No. 1 at the beginning of the break.
McIlroy admitted he had motivational issues, most notably from the absence of fans and the energy they bring.
McIlroy tied for fifth at the Masters in November, but was well behind winner Dustin Johnson. Earlier this year, he finished third at a tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, then missed the cut at the Players Championship following an opening-round 79.
Afterward, McIlroy admitted that he got caught up in chasing more distance off the tee, despite being one of the longest hitters in the game. He said seeing what Bryson DeChambeau has done, hitting the ball farther, got him going down the wrong path.
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“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open,” McIlroy said of DeChambeau, who won the event at Winged Foot in New York by 6 shots in September. “I think a lot of people saw that and were like, whoa, if this is the way they’re going to set golf courses up in the future, it helps. It really helps.”
If going for speed got him out of sorts, bringing on Cowen was meant to get him back to what worked previously.
“Obviously bringing Pete into the equation is a change, but it’s a familiar one,” McIlroy said. “It’s not as if it’s the first time Pete and I have really worked together. I’ve known Pete for a long, long time. It’s just getting a slightly different opinion. Maybe sometimes when you’re in something, you’re so in it that you sometimes can’t take a step back and sort of see it from the outside. Just getting someone’s opinion from the outside looking in can be a good thing. That’s really what Pete has been.”
To McIlroy’s point, there is still work to be done. The victory at the Wells Fargo Championship was viewed more as relief than triumph. It had been so long that McIlroy admitted he didn’t feel comfortable. And he knew he didn’t have his best stuff.
Having won twice previously at Quail Hollow in North Carolina, there was a sense of comfort on the greens. And McIlroy had one of his best putting weeks, ranking third in the field in strokes gained putting. That is an aberration. For the season, McIlroy ranks 105th on the PGA Tour in that category.
When McIlroy is at his best, he drives the ball better than anyone and couples that with an above-average putting week. At Quail Hollow, he hit just three fairways in the final round and only 18 for the tournament.
“Great teams are built in adversity,” Cowen said. “It’s an easy job when everything is going along nicely. You just have to know the player’s tendencies and what matches when they are playing well. I’ve only found one common denominator between players when they are playing well and that is they are always in the correct delivery position relative to the shot they are intending to play. They all get there in their own way, not always the same.”
Cowen has a unique arrangement with his players. He gets a percentage of their prize money, but only if they finish among the top 10. He pays his own travel expenses. In return, though, he gets a higher fee from his players when they finish in the top 10 because he might often go to many tournaments without getting paid. He does not charge them a fee per session, nor a set amount per week or per year.
When Stenson went through a period of big struggles, Cowen suffered as well.
“It was 2½ years of nothing, basically; but that was my commitment to him,” Cowen said. “You’re not winning anything, so I can’t charge you anything. So let’s keep going until it happens. We saw bits of sparks in there occasionally, but not very often. He just persevered.”
So has McIlroy, whose payday at the Wells Fargo tournament topped $1.45 million. That should garner a nice paycheck after a short time on the payroll for Cowen, who could just be getting McIlroy started.
So McIlroy returns to Kiawah, searching for success again on the major stage, hoping for that fifth big one after a seven-year drought. That pursuit is the reason someone like Cowen was brought into McIlroy’s world.