Rory McIlroy Returns to The Ocean Course

Rory McIlroy returns to The Ocean Course this May nine years after storming to a record-breaking win at the 2012 PGA Championship. He shares his recollections of his astonishing victory, his thoughts on returning for round two at the 2021 PGA Championship and his appraisal of the state of professional golf nine years later.

By May of 2021, it will have been nine years since your incredible victory at the 2012 PGA Championship. What has been the most indelible memory from that tournament?

Rory: In a strange sort of way the win seems like it happened only yesterday. It remains so fresh because it was an enormous occasion for me, doubling my then Major tally and really doing wonders for my confidence. There are many very positive memories that linger from the tournament but perhaps two stand out most for me. I was, firstly, playing really solid golf but I was also comfortable in the way I was managing the difficult, windy conditions on a very trying Ocean Course. And, secondly, knowing that I was in control of my game, I went out on Sunday with a certain sense of calm and quiet confidence that this tournament was mine for the taking.

The world witnessed an especially moving moment between you and your father when you won in 2012. Describe the emotions you were feeling sharing that moment with your dad.

Rory: I remember first giving my caddie, JP, a big hug. Then, after a few handshakes, I started to look around for my dad – and once I saw him, it just heightened the emotion of the occasion. I know there are many images out there of me wiping away the tears on the 18th green but that was simply evidence of how much that first PGA win meant to me. Dad being there to help me share the win was also part of a much greater journey of hard work, grinding out scores week after week and my parents’ sacrifices that stretched back years. And while the 8-stroke winning margin was significant for me, dad and I were very conscious of the meaning and importance of a second Major win.

Pete Dye made a conscious decision to keep a withered old live oak tree right in the middle of the fairway of the short par-4 third hole. The tournament moved the tee up that day, so most players were going for it. You followed suit with a 3-wood and hit a nice shot dead on line with the green – except the ball never came down. It could have been a disaster, but you took a drop, pitched it 15 feet and saved par. What was going through your mind when at first no one on the course could find the ball until it occurred to somebody to look in the tree?

Rory: Oh, yes, I remember that old tree very well. It was on the Saturday and, as you rightly say, I’d hit what I thought was a great shot only to learn that it had lodged in the old oak. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t initially disappointed, especially as all golfers feel that good shots should be rewarded while wayward ones are, well, in the lap of the gods. But once I knew, and accepted, that a birdie was out of the question, I was simply trying to limit the damage and move on. My good up-and-down par ensured I didn’t dwell on it for long. ‘Rory’s tree’ was, I believe, lost a few years after the 2012 PGA and recently replaced with another. And I’ll be happy to let some other, unfortunate soul have their name on this one.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you were cursing Pete’s name that afternoon, as numerous other players have on that hole, but on the day that Pete Dye passed away, you tweeted that you had been playing on one of his masterpieces, TPC Sawgrass, just that morning. Reflecting back over the past nine years, has your appreciation for Pete Dye evolved since you won the 2012 PGA on The Ocean Course?

Rory: I think that’s a pretty fair statement. However, it was not as if, as a younger golfer, I ignored the nuances of iconic courses or thoughtful, considered design; it was really just a case of firstly trying to perfect a game capable of giving any course a run for its money. Pete Dye certainly didn’t have me in mind when designing courses but his amazing creations, especially Kiawah’s Ocean Course, Sawgrass and Whistling Straits, do allow me to get the most from my game. Wins on The Ocean Course and Sawgrass (although a few years apart) and a couple of solid performances at Whistling Straits definitely bear this out.

Although often described as such, The Ocean Course is not a true links course in notable ways (apart from obvious lack of sheep). For example, it doesn’t really accommodate lower trajectory bump-and-run shots. But in other ways it does bear some particular similarities to Irish and Scottish links courses – most noticeably the absence of large vegetation such as trees, more natural (less manicured) landscaping and – most famously – blustery winds due to the seaside setting. Do you think those elements added a degree of familiarity that assisted you in 2012?

Rory: There are, admittedly, many comparisons we can draw from almost all seaside courses, whether it’s The Ocean Course at Kiawah or more traditional links venues. But traditional or otherwise, both are typically windy, generally firm and have an abundance of bunkers. And one thing will always remain true: absolutely everything is about controlling the ball, in the air or along the ground. In essence, all facets of a golfer’s game need to be in excellent working order to excel in these conditions. While I did win the 2012 PGA convincingly, I believe it was, generally, more to do with my game being in a great place rather than drawing on my familiarity with the links conditions from my earlier career. And, if I remember correctly, I did, even on the Sunday, miss a number of greens and had my fair share of bunkers to negotiate.

Nine years can seem like a lifetime in the world of professional golf. What are some of the notable ways the professional game has changed since 2012, and how do you think that might come to bear on the 2021 PGA Championship?

Rory: I believe it’s easy to look at the modern game and think that things remain pretty much the same as before: the world number one slot changes hands every now and again and new golfers come on the scene, replacing the once familiar names and faces. For the most part this is true and, perhaps, even healthy for the game. But, for me at least, one change that strikes me most is the incredible depth of ability and talent in every field in recent years. I’ve been on Tour for over 12 years now and I definitely feel that a stronger, deeper field is an increasing reality. Simply put, a greater number of capable golfers has come to the fore, proving they can win at the highest level. If I am still the one to beat come May 2021, I will be up against a larger number of realistic contenders than I believe was once the case. I also think I’m happy with that scenario.

Please feel free to share any other pertinent thoughts about coming back to The Ocean Course in 2021.

Rory: I try not to plan or project too far into my schedule. That said, though, I do hope, come the time, that my game is in good shape to ensure I am a serious contender. It will also be my own, personal defense, after a nine-year interval, of a title that meant so much to the 23 year old me. And now that I feel I have evolved and matured as a golfer, I will be more likely to give more attention to the old nuances and subtle changes made to The Ocean Course in the intervening years. I don’t think I will ever say I have mastered any of Pete Dye’s courses — I’m just happy to keep learning and taking new experiences from each visit.

The Ocean Course will host the 2021 PGA Championship, May 20-23, 2021 at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.