The last time Rory McIlroy had a lesson from putting coach Dave Stockton was more than three months ago, before the Masters.
The two have talked plenty, but not as much as you might expect.
And since McIlroy split from fiancée Caroline Wozniacki and chucked his cell phone and computer, Stockton’s lines of communication more recently have gone through McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, when Stockton wants to get a message to the 25-year-old.
While McIlroy was mostly coasting to a two-shot win at Royal Liverpool, Stockton was more than 4,000 miles away in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on the eastern tip of Vancouver Island. He was a few days into a family excursion across the Great North that included son Dave Jr. and 10 grandkids. On the itinerary was a trip through the Canadian Rockies to Jasper, Alberta, and on to Banff with a long train ride past Lake Louise and some big-game hunting along the way.
On Sunday, he watched on television as one of his prized pupils bagged his own trophy.
After hoisting the Claret Jug on Sunday, McIlroy admitted that he had focused on two words all week: “process” and “spot.”
“I didn’t know what two words he was going to say,” said Stockton. “When I heard him mention ‘process’ and ‘spot’ I just about fell off my chair. Spot putting is basically what we teach.”
A day later, McIlroy expounded on what the two words meant to him.
“Staying in the process, make good mental decisions, make good swings, stay in the moment, stay focused, execute your game plan, stick to your game plan,” McIlroy told ESPN’s Mike & Mike Show. “There’s quite a lot of mental strength that goes on to not allow yourself to think about winning, or the result, or what it would mean for your career. You have to refrain from thinking about it because any sort of thought can derail you; a loss of concentration, a loss of focus, that can be two shots gone right there. These two trigger words really helped.
“For me to play golf at this level, it’s all mental. The physical capabilities are there. A lot of guys on Tour can go out and shoot a 65 or 66 on any given day, but it’s being able to do it when you need to and do it when the pressure is on, and I feel like I’m getting better at that.”
It’s all a sign of just how far McIlroy has come in recent months, particularly with his short game.
But the idea itself isn’t a new one. A year earlier, it had helped Phil Mickelson to his first Open Championship.
McIlroy’s execution of it, much like Mickelson the year before, was flawless.
In short, Stockton tries to get players to simplify the stroke by getting the back of the left moving toward a spot and trying to get the ball to roll over it — rather than trying to hit at the ball — and not worry about the result.
“For a lot of players as soon as they touch the ball with the putter, the head comes up or the stroke stops,” Stockton said. “And if there’s been no reaction to the putter when it hits the ball, you’re going to make a good stroke every time.
“(Putting) is like a free throw — the follow-through is many times more important than the stroke itself.”
Last week, McIlroy had just 110 total putts with more than 27 in a round just once. He also had 34 one-putts — third-most in the field — and didn’t have a single three-putt. By comparison, Mickelson had 117 total putts in his victory at Muirfield.
The other part of the equation, of course, is how well McIlroy hit the ball. He averaged more than 327 yards off the tee and hit better than 66 percent of his fairways, both of which allowed him to be in position with the putter.
“What feels good to him, that’s what he has been trying to find out,” said Stockton, who has been working with McIlroy since just before the 2011 U.S. Open. “What he is rediscovering is his passion for the game and in doing so his feel.
“He has come miles in the years we’ve worked together. Now it’s his. He knows what makes him feel good. … It was spectacular to see.”
And as far as Stockton is concerned the best of McIlroy is yet to come.
Having worked with Mickelson and McIlroy, he sees some similarities between the two. But then he offered this:
“Rory is very creative and I see that in Phil all the time,” Stockton said. “Phil has one of the most-gifted short games I’ve ever seen. Rory has the advantage of being much straighter off the tee. Rory’s approach is extremely simple. They’re similar in that they’re creative, but Rory can take it to another level.”