Rory McIlroy in fine fettle for Masters after improving mental side of game
Rory McIlroy's efforts to improve his attitude and his mental game finally paid off with a thrilling Players Championship win on Sunday.
It's been the elephant in the room since he finished fifth in last year's Masters, limping to a 74 as Patrick Reed looked elsewhere for his challengers and eventually donned the famous Green Jacket.
Sports psychologist Gio Valiante suggested that on the evidence of what we saw in that final round, McIlroy needed to change his mental approach or his prayers at the Cathedral of Pines would remain unanswered.
"Augusta National can punish if you play too aggressively," Valiante said.
"So until he starts to play more maturely - until Rory McIlroy learns how to play more patient and tactical golf - I don't see him winning at Augusta."
The mental coach - whose former clients include the likes of Justin Rose and Jack Nicklaus - suggested McIlroy needed to play more like the 'Golden Bear' than the golden child, and needed to add tactical nuance and more mental skills to his impressive arsenal of weapons.
"It's not lack of maturity as a human being, it's the way he plays the game," Valiante said.
McIlroy said he'd never heard of Valiante but, like Padraig Harrington, he's realised that separating what Kipling called the "twin imposters" of success and failure is the key to mental health in a game where losing is the norm.
Harrington said of winning his first Major: "When you do win, you're put up on a pedestal and everything is great.
"And when you don't win, it's very easy to be cut down at the knees. To be honest, there's not much difference."
Even Nicklaus recognised the transformation in McIlroy on Sunday night, declaring that the Co Down man looks ready for the Major season to come.
"Nine years ago this month I had the opportunity to sit with winless 20-yr-old @McIlroyRory & talk 'patience'," Nicklaus tweeted.
"Soon after, he shot a Sunday 62 at @ QuailHollow for 1st @PGATOUR win. Today Rory showed great discipline & patience down stretch to win @THEPLAYERSChamp! Very proud & happy for him!"
His putting advisor and confidante Brad Faxon, who like Harrington is a long-time disciple of sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella, has helped McIlroy take a step back from the instant gratification of results, whether it be a six-foot putt or a tournament win.
So when asked on Sunday if his measured celebration was his way of ensuring that his successes don't define him any more than his failures, Ulsterman McIlroy nodded vigorously in agreement.
"Yep, a hundred per cent," he said.
"Of course, I desperately wanted the win, but it's just another day.
"It's just another step in the journey. I've been preaching perspective, and I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on that perspective.
"It's a glimpse. My career is hopefully going to last another 15 or 20 years, so one tournament or one day or one month in those 20 years is nothing. It's just a glimpse. So it doesn't change anything. It doesn't change who I am.
"It's another step in the right direction. But that's all it is to me. It's a huge tournament to win.
"I've just got to do my thing, and if I go and I concentrate on me, control what I can do, good golf and good attitude takes care of the rest.
"And if I go to Augusta with a similar golf game to what I have now and the attitude I've shown over the first few weeks of the year, I think I'll have a great chance."