LYTHAM ST. ANNES – Rory McIlroy went out to dinner a few nights ago at one of this English city's finer restaurants. He got to enjoy his meal in relative peace, with only a handful of fans pestering him for a picture.
Hard to imagine that happening in the approach to last year's British Open, when Rorymania was at its peak.
The kid likes low key a whole lot better.
"It's been lovely just going about my business," McIlroy said. "It's been nice to sort of prepare and there's definitely not the madness that was going on last year."
Back then, the curly-haired Northern Irishman was coming off his first major victory — a runaway at the U.S. Open — and being heralded as the new face of a game desperate to move past Tiger Woods' stunning downfall.
McIlroy didn't handle the hype all that well, struggling to a 25th-place finish at Royal St. George's, then complaining about the dastardly conditions that are as much a part of links golf as the fairways and greens.
In what passes for heresy in these parts, he flatly stated, "I'm not a fan of golf tournaments where the outcome is dictated so much by the weather." When asked if he should adapt his game to become a serious challenger at golf's oldest major, McIlroy sounded downright petulant when he said he'd just bide his time until he caught a break with the forecast.
"It's not my sort of golf," he grumbled. "I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind."
Looking back, McIlroy knows that he should have held his tongue.
"Those comments were just pure frustration," he conceded. "It was having really high expectations going into it, coming off a major win, and really wanting to play well, get into contention, and not doing that. Then blaming the weather, blaming the draw, blaming my luck, basically. That was just frustration."
Since his eight-stroke win at Congressional, McIlroy hasn't been much of a factor in the majors. He was 64th at the last PGA Championship in Atlanta, essentially ruining his chances when he made an ill-fated attempt to play a shot off a tree root and wound up spraining his wrist. This year, he tumbled out of contention at the Masters with a 77-76 performance on the weekend, and he didn't even make the cut trying to defend his U.S. Open title at Olympic.
Those struggles on the biggest stages have led some to wonder if McIlroy spent too much time savoring his triumph and not enough time working on his game. After winning at Congressional, he took a month off before showing up at the British Open without even bothering to play a competitive round in between. This year, in the midst of missing the cut in four out of five tournaments, he vowed to head to the range to work on his game — only to be photographed hopping a Eurostar train to Paris to watch his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, play in the French Open.
"I'm sure McIlroy wants to try and redeem himself a little bit," said Tony Jacklin, a Hall of Famer who won the 1969 British Open. "I don't mean it in an unkind way. We had great expectations earlier this year at Augusta and the U.S. Open and it didn't come to much for him. He is a precocious talent."
With plenty of time to grow and mature.
McIlroy is still just 23 years old, and he's quick to point out that he's played well enough to climb to the top of the world rankings three different times since his U.S. Open victory. Even now, while admittedly mired in a bit of a slump, he's still holding down the No. 2 spot behind Luke Donald.
"There's never been any distractions," McIlroy insisted. "I don't think my game completely went off. Everyone has bad spells and I had a couple of bad weeks where I didn't play so well. But it's just a little blip in the radar and I feel like I'm swinging well again. And I feel like this will be a great week to play well."
As if to show his commitment to go the extra mile preparing for Royal Lytham & St. Annes, McIlroy played three weeks ago at the Irish Open, giving him a taste of links golf and persnickety conditions. He made it to the weekend and wound up 10th.
"I felt like I played well in the bad conditions," McIlroy said. "If it's like that again this week, you're just going to have to knuckle down and focus and keep fighting and stay tough and try and shoot a score in bad conditions."
He's also done some training with the Ulster Rugby Club and one of his best friends, Darren Cave.
These days, McIlroy acknowledges that a lack of preparation doomed him more than the conditions at Royal St. George's. He had planned to tune up at the French Open (the golf version), but dropped out to focus on all his media and sponsor demands.
Not exactly the way to get ready for a major championship.
"There were so many requests coming in and so many things to do," McIlroy recalled. "I knew if I went to the French Open my mind wouldn't be fully on it, so that's why I didn't go in the end. But in hindsight it would have been good to get that extra competitive week."
He went on to say, "Obviously the hype and everything was so big last year, as well, and, yeah, maybe it had a little bit to do with it. But at the end of the day, I just didn't play well enough to figure in the tournament."
Sounds like young Rory might be growing up a bit.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963