McIlroy would love to rediscover that kid at Oak Hill this week.
In its place is a 24-year-old from Northern Ireland who has reason to feel much older. He hasn't won a tournament, and only once did he even come close. He has finished over par in all three majors, with only two rounds at the British Open. He has failed to make the cut five times this year, which includes walking off the course in the Honda Classic with sore wisdom teeth that still haven't been removed.
Among betting favorites, he was second only to Tiger Woods at the Masters at 5-to-1. For the PGA Championship, the odds are 30-to-1, higher than two players (Henrik Stenson and Brandt Snedeker) who have never won a major.
And he can't wait to get to the first tee Thursday afternoon.
Inspiration comes from videos he has been watching of his eight-shot win at Kiawah Island, along with his back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff wins against some of the strongest fields of the year. Some of what he noticed was technical, such as the position of his club in the swing. What really stood out was the body language.
"It's how you carry yourself. It's all that sort of stuff, your little mannerisms," McIlroy said. "I guess it's just trying to remember those feelings and remember how I felt that week and trying to carry some of that into this week and just get those good, positive thoughts going.
"I think everyone sees when I walk and I'm playing well, I have that little bounce in my step."
What would go a lot longer at Oak Hill is keeping the ball in play on a traditional, tree-lined course so many trees that even being in the fairway doesn't mean a clear shot at the green if the ball is slightly out of position. The greens are small and slope toward the front. Oak Hill is a hard golf course, and the evidence comes from the previous five majors held on this Donald Ross design only 10 players in those five majors have finished under par.
"This may be the toughest golf course, but the fairest golf course that we play," said Tom Watson, playing this major for the 32nd time. "Somebody is going to win this thing, and that person is going to play awfully well, awfully good golf this week. Wish I could say that's me."
Watson was joking. Not so funny is that the way McIlroy's year has gone, there isn't much reason to believe it could be him, either.
Most of the attention is on Woods, even though he has gone five years and 17 majors without winning one. Woods won the Bridgestone Invitational last week by seven shots, sparked by a 61 in the second round that tied his personal best. That gave Woods five wins this year, which is five more than McIlroy.
Phil Mickelson opened with a 65 in 2003 the last time the PGA Championship was played at Oak Hill until fading badly in one of his worst seasons as a pro. He is coming off an astounding win at the British Open, where his 66 in the final round is regarded as one of the best closing rounds in a major. If he could pick off another PGA Championship, Mickelson would be a shoo-in as PGA Tour player of the year, an award he has never won.
McIlroy, meanwhile, has been largely forgotten through ordinary play and endless questions about a season gone wrong from his opening tournament when he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi. Some of his troubles have been attributed to a wholesale equipment change, others to his decision to change management companies.
McIlroy said his switch to Nike is no longer an excuse, not with 15 tournaments under his belt. He says it has taken longer than usual to work his way out of bad habits.
"I guess every time you play and you don't play well, it sort of chips away at your confidence a little bit," he said.
McIlroy has gone through this before. Only a year ago, he had gone five months without a win and missed the cut in four out of five tournaments. With a spark at Firestone, he showed up at Kiawah Island and overwhelmed the strongest field in golf in ways only Woods used to do.
"I love proving people wrong," McIlroy said.
Ian Poulter's advice was everyone to "give him a break."
Poulter tied for third by nine shots last year at Kiawah Island and has watched the fall of a kid who looked one year ago that he would be on top of golf for a long time. Now it's back to Woods and Mickelson at Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, with the kid trying to claw his way back.
"I think sometimes we forget how young he is and what he's been able to achieve at a very early age," Poulter said. "So the second he feels comfortable again, whether that's with his swing or equipment or whatever it is, then Rory will be winning golf tournaments. That natural swing of his doesn't just disappear overnight."
Despite all the scrutiny on everything from his new equipment to new management, to girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and moving from Northern Ireland to south Florida McIlroy hasn't dodged the questions for which he has no tangible answers.
"I'd definitely rather be up here talking about more positive things, but I guess that's the way it is," McIlroy said. "Should you lay off me? That's not for me to decide. I'm here and I'm answering your questions and that's all I can do. As I said, it would be nicer just to sit up here, talk about some more positive things. But the way the year's gone, it's understandable why I'm not."
O First round
Thursday, 11 a.m.
TV • TNT
Hole 1-Hole 10
5:10 a.m.-10:20 a.m. • Rob Labritz, United States; John Senden, Australia; Shane Lowry, Ireland
5:20 a.m.-10:30 a.m. • Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Thailand; Bob Gaus, United States; Luke Guthrie, United States
5:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m. • Marc Leishman, Australia; Josh Teater, United States; Pablo Larrazabal, Spain
5:40 a.m.-10:50 a.m. • Tommy Gainey, United States; Ryan Palmer, United States; David Hearn, Canada
5:50 a.m.-11 a.m. • Michael Thompson, United States; Marcel Siem, Germany; Bo Van Pelt, United States
6 a.m.-11:10 a.m. • Shaun Micheel, United States; Rich Beem, United States; J.J. Henry, United States
6:10 a.m.-11:20 a.m. • Richard Sterne, South Africa; Scott Brown, United States; David Lingmerth, Sweden
6:20 a.m.-11:30 a.m. • Ben Curtis, United States; Marcus Fraser, Australia; Peter Hanson, Sweden
6:30 a.m.-11:40 a.m. • Stewart Cink, United States; Paul Lawrie, Scotland; Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Spain
6:40 a.m.-11:50 a.m. • Thorbjorn Olesen, Denmark; Brian Gay, United States; David Lynn, England
6:50 a.m.-12 p.m. • Stephen Gallacher, Scotland; David McNabb, United States; Branden Grace, South Africa
7 a.m.-12:10 p.m. • Caine Fitzgerald, United States; Kevin Streelman, United States; Bernd Wiesberger, Austria
7:10 a.m.-12:20 p.m. • JC Anderson, United States; Matt Jones, Australia; Jaco Van Zyl, South Africa
10:25 a.m.-5:15 a.m. • John Huh, United States; Ryo Ishikawa, Japan; Danny Balin, United States
10:35 a.m.-5:25 a.m. • Darren Clarke, Northern Ireland; Tom Watson, United States; Paul McGinley, Ireland
10:45 a.m.-5:35 a.m. • Kohki Idoki, Japan; Rod Perry, United States; Nick Watney, United States
10:55 a.m.-5:45 a.m. • Nicolas Colsaerts, Belgium; Jason Day, Australia; Brandt Snedeker, United States
11:05 a.m.-5:55 a.m. • Tim Clark, South Africa; Lee Westwood, England; Bubba Watson, United States
11:15 a.m.-6:05 a.m. • Miguel Angel Jimenez, Spain; Webb Simpson, United States; Angel Cabrera, Argentina
11:25 a.m.-6:15 a.m. • Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland; Vijay Singh, Fiji; Martin Kaymer, Germany
11:35 a.m.-6:25 a.m. • Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Spain; Luke Donald, England; Jordan Spieth, United States
11:45 a.m.-6:35 a.m. • Adam Scott, Australia; Justin Rose, England; Phil Mickelson, United States
11:55 a.m.-6:45 a.m. • Lucas Glover, United States; Ian Poulter, England; Zach Johnson, United States
12:05 p.m.-6:55 a.m. • Kevin Chappell, United States; Christopher Wood, England; Mike Small, United States
12:15 p.m.-7:05 a.m. • Kevin Stadler, United States; Chip Sullivan, United States; Chris Stroud, United States
12:25 p.m.-7:15 a.m. • Sonny Skinner, United States; Gary Woodland, United States, Richie Ramsay, Scotland
Hole 10-Hole 1
5:15 a.m.-10:25 a.m. • Charley Hoffman, United States; Bob Sowards, United States; Matt Every, United States
5:25 a.m.-10:35 a.m. • Mark Sheftic, United States; Robert Garrigus, United States; Hiroyuki Fujita, Japan
5:35 a.m.-10:45 a.m. • Hunter Mahan, United States; Paul Casey, England; Billy Horschel, United States
5:45 a.m.-10:55 a.m. • Hideki Matsuyama, Japan; Steve Stricker, United States; Jason Dufner, United States
5:55 a.m.-11:05 a.m. • Sergio Garcia, Spain; Matt Kuchar, United States; Rickie Fowler, United States
6:05 a.m.-11:15 a.m. • Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland; Ernie Els, South Africa; Bill Haas, United States
6:15 a.m.-11:25 a.m. • David Toms, United States; Padraig Harrington, Ireland; Y.E. Yang, South Korea
6:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m. • Henrik Stenson, Sweden; Dustin Johnson, United States; Charl Schwartzel, South Africa
6:35 a.m.-11:45 a.m. • Davis Love III, United States; Keegan Bradley, United States; Tiger Woods, United States
6:45 a.m.-11:55 a.m. • Peter Uihlein, United States; Jim Furyk, United States; Thomas Bjorn, Denmark
6:55 a.m.-12:05 p.m. • K.J. Choi, South Korea; Ryan Polzin, United States; Jonas Blixt, Sweden
7:05 a.m.-12:15 p.m. • Scott Stallings, United States; Jason Kokrak, United States; Jeff Sorenson, United States
7:15 a.m.-12:25 p.m. • Scott Jamieson, Scotland; Roberto Castro, United States; Stuart Smith, United States
10:20 a.m.-5:10 a.m. • Mark Brown, United States; Scott Piercy, United States; Brooks Koepka, United States
10:30 a.m.-5:20 a.m. • Derek Ernst, United States; Jeff Martin, United States; Charles Howell III, United States
10:40 a.m.-5:30 a.m. • Ken Duke, United States; Matteo Manassero, Italy; Jimmy Walker, United States
10:50 a.m.-5:40 a.m. • Danny Willett, England; Joost Luiten, Netherlands; Russell Henley, United States
11 a.m.-5:50 a.m.• Freddie Jacobson, Sweden; George Coetzee, South Africa; Harris English, United States
11:10 a.m.-6 a.m. • Boo Weekley, United States; Francesco Molinari, Italy; Thongchai Jaidee, Thailand
11:20 a.m.-6:10 a.m. • Jamie Donaldson, Wales; Ryan Moore, United States; Alex Noren, Sweden
11:30 a.m.-6:20 a.m. • Brett Rumford, Australia; Geoff Ogilvy, Australia; John Merrick, United States
11:40 a.m.-6:30 a.m. • Sang-Moon Bae, South Korea; Woody Austin, United States; Martin Laird, Scotland
11:50 a.m.-6:40 a.m. • Carl Pettersson, Sweden; D.A. Points, United States; Mikko Ilonen, Finland
12 p.m.-6:50 a.m. • Graham DeLaet, Canada; Kirk Hanefeld, United States; Kyle Stanley, United States
12:10 p.m.-7 a.m. • David Muttitt, United States; Charlie Beljan, United States; Brendon de Jonge, United States
12:20 p.m.-7:10 a.m. • Lee Rhind, United States; Chris Kirk, United States; Marc Warren, Scotland