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New Year, new mindset, as Rory now ready to let loose

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His failure to win at home last summer provided Rory McIlroy with a liberating epiphany — he’s playing with house money from here on out, so don’t hold anything back.

McIlroy left the Open Championship at Royal Portrush an emotional mess after coming up just short of the cut, fighting uphill after his opening tee shot when went out of bounds and led to a crippling quadruple bogey to start.

He left with two valuable lessons — his appreciation for his unwavering support at home and the realisation that he no longer has anything to lose on the golf course.

“It doesn’t serve me as a golfer to try to be careful, to try to play conservatively, or the way maybe some other people play,” McIlroy said in California yesterday as he prepared to kick off his 2020 season in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

I have my own style of play and most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But sometimes I get into situations and I become a little too conservative and I become a little too careful.

“I said to myself after Portrush — I’m 30 years old, I have basically achieved everything that I’ve wanted to achieve in the game, why would I be careful? Why would I not go out there with the most carefree attitude and think everything beyond this is just gravy? That’s something that I’ve learned, that’s a mindset that I’m going to try to replicate each and every time that I tee it up.”

It was a hard lesson to learn at the lowest point of an otherwise tremendously successful year. McIlroy won four times in 2019 including the Players Championship, the RBC Canadian Open, and the PGA Tour Championship to claim the season-long FedEx Cup title and the $15m (€13.5m) prize. He added a victory in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in November.

All in all, McIlroy posted 19 top-10 finishes in 25 worldwide starts in 2019 and was voted US PGA Tour Player of the Year by his peers.

Despite all that, his failure to add to his four career majors was a relative disappointment — especially that missed cut in front of his home fans at the Open Championship. He said his mindset is what led to slow starts in three of the four majors and ultimately extended his drought without a major win going back to his Open-PGA combo in 2014.

“When I look back at the majors that I’ve won and I’ve done well in, I’ve always started well,” he said.

“Sometimes you go out in the first draw and you’re trying to sort of play your way in the golf tournament — make a few pars, play sort of protective golf a little bit — and that’s never really been in my nature.

“I’m the other way, right? I start aggressively, and if I do and I play well, I usually keep myself up there in the tournament, for the most part. So it was just slow starts for the most part that held me back last year, and that’s something that I’m going to try to improve on this year.”

A fast start this week at Torrey Pines could return McIlroy to the No. 1 ranking in the world with a victory — a position he hasn’t held since the summer of 2015.

Overtaking Brooks Koepka for the top spot “wasn’t on the radar when I was flying back from Northern Ireland in July”, McIlroy said last night, adding it wasn’t even on his list of goals coming into 2020.

“I’ve played consistently good golf since (Portrush),” McIlroy said. “I don’t want to say it feels like it’s just a matter of time (to reach No. 1), but if I just keep doing what I’m doing, if it isn’t this week, then hopefully it’s a couple of weeks down the line and I’ll have my chances. So I’m not putting myself under any pressure this week to get it done.”

McIlroy finished tied for fifth last year in his career debut at the Farmers Insurance Open — one of seven consecutive top-10 finishes leading into the Masters tournament. Torrey Pines marks the seventh consecutive different starting venue for his US PGA Tour year as he seeks the magic launching point building up to his chance to complete the career slam at Augusta National.

In previous seasons he’s started his PGA Tour new year at Kapalua (2019), Pebble Beach (2018), Mexico (2017), Riviera (2016), PGA National (2015), and the WGC-Match Play (2009-14). He’s skipping the European Tour’s Middle East swing entirely this season and also passed on a return to Hawaii after spending Christmas and the New Year at home in Ireland.

He looks forward to an ambitious summer schedule including a five-week run of tournaments starting with the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet Estate at the end of May and his first taste of the Olympics, representing Ireland in Tokyo.

As he’ll turn 31 in May, he said he’ll need to maintain his significantly-improved play around the greens and putting along with his carefree mindset to keep up with the waves of successive superstars emerging on tour.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge going forward over the next 10 years,” he said.

“There’s always fresh blood coming through and new talent. It’s trying to keep up with them.”

With that in mind, his goals — winning that elusive green jacket at the Masters is a priority and tasting major success again — certainly haven’t diminished. Reclaiming No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings would be a likely byproduct of his goal to win a personal-best six tournaments around the world in the calendar year.

“I want to play the best golf that I possibly can, I want to win as much as I can,” he said. “I set myself a goal of winning six times last year and I won four, so I didn’t quite achieve it. But I still had a good year. Five is the most that I’ve ever won and I would like to top that at some point, so I think that six number is still something that I strive towards.”

If his goals don’t pan out as planned, McIlroy can drawback on his experience in front of his home fans at Royal Portrush to get him through.

“If I’m ever struggling or if I’m ever feeling down about things, I can always think back to the support that I got that day, which is really cool.”he said.