Former champion Rory McIlroy believes he needs to rediscover the carefree approach which led to his unlikely victory in the 2014 BMW PGA Championship to potentially emulate the best season of his career.
Victory at Wentworth four years ago came just days after a visibly upset McIlroy revealed he had called off his wedding to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, the Northern Irishman admitting being inside the ropes had been his “sanctuary” during a turbulent week.
And while the four-time major winner, who married Erica Stoll in 2017, would clearly not wish for any similar personal heartache this week, he is well aware that 2014’s triumph was followed later that year by consecutive victories in the Open Championship, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA.
“I guess all you need is that spark or that catalyst,” McIlroy said. “I felt like my game was trending in the right direction in 2014, but didn’t quite have the win.
“On that Sunday I was seven shots behind going into the last day. I didn’t expect to win. I just wanted to go out and play a good final round.
“I think about that a lot because you’d love to go out and play with that mindset all the time, but that’s not life and we’re wired as human beings to be a bit more careful, to stay away from the water, don’t hit it in that bunker.
“I think that’s just the way we’re wired as humans and it’s a constant battle with yourself out on the course to try and get away from that and freewheel it and be a bit more confident in your decisions and make free golf swings.
“I’d love to go out and play that way every single time, but I don’t think that’s possible. I’d like to get to the point where the majority of the time you can play that way.
“But it did snowball from there (in 2014) and I got on to a nice little bit of a hot streak, and I’d love to be able to do something like that again.
“I’ve got a busy summer coming up. There’s a lot of big tournaments to play in, still got three major championships and the Ryder Cup and everything else. So yeah, maybe this could be the spark that gets that all going again.”
McIlroy’s 2018 campaign has hardly been a disaster thanks to an impressive victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and three other top-five finishes, but he has also missed three cuts and failed to complete the career grand slam after a disappointing final round in the Masters.
“The win at Bay Hill was great,” McIlroy added. “I think playing my way into the final group at Augusta was fantastic, as well, so they were real steps forward compared to, say, the last 18 months.
“I just feel like it’s been a little bit inconsistent. If I can just get my play a little bit more consistent and swing a little more consistently, that would be a step in the right direction.”
Westwood has played in the last 10 contests since making his debut in 1997 and was on the winning side seven times, while Harrington was vice-captain to Paul McGinley in 2014 and Darren Clarke in 2016.
McDowell, who claimed the winning point at Celtic Manor in 2010, and Donald will make their debuts in the backroom staff at Le Golf National in Paris as Europe seek to regain the trophy following defeat at Hazeltine two years ago.
Bjorn, who had already selected Sweden’s Robert Karlsson as a vice-captain, said: “All five are widely respected throughout the game, are all current players who are well known to the players who will be in our team come September and they also all possess a knowledge and understanding of what to expect from the golf course at Le Golf National too.
“You only need to look at the record books to see that their Ryder Cup pedigree speaks for itself. Each of them has played both home and away so they are well versed in the contest and know how to handle the special and unique atmosphere.
“They all possess strong personalities but each of them will also bring something different to the team, giving us great balance. They have forthright opinions which is vital under the spotlight of a Ryder Cup week and is something which can only help our cause as we try and regain the trophy.”
The quartet could still qualify for the biennial contest which takes place from September 28-30, but Westwood (117th) is the only player currently ranked inside the world’s top 200.
Westwood and Harrington have also expressed an interest in the captaincy and could be rivals to succeed Bjorn and lead Europe in the 2020 contest at Whistling Straits.
Bjorn’s opposite number Jim Furyk has named Davis Love, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker as assistants, although Woods has stated his intention to play on the team as well.
Justin Thomas became golf’s new number one on Sunday, ending fellow American Dustin Johnson’s 64-week reign atop the world rankings.
The Kentucky man finished T11 at the Players Championship at Sawgrass and with Johnson’s T17 finish, it was enough for the 25-year-old to leapfrog him and become the seventh American in history to reach the pinnacle of the rankings.
Thomas may not be a household name like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIroy or Johnson, but his rise to domination is no surprise.
His trajectory as an amateur always pointed to this, winning the Haskins Award – accolade for the most outstanding collegiate golfer – as a freshman at 19 and central to Alabama’s national championship win in 2013. His talent was always comparable to best friend Spieth, but the Texan’s breakthrough came quicker with three major wins by just 23.
But for all the slow signs of progress on the world stage, Thomas finally rose to prominence after chalking his first win at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia in 2015. He maintained his level of consistency and class and jumped from 33rd to third in the rankings over a 15-month period from September 2016 to December 2017.
He did drop to third at the start of this year but victory at the Honda Classic followed by a runners-up finish at the WGC-Mexico Championship moved him to second.
In 38 tournaments since September 2016, Thomas has won seven times, including a FedEX Cup play-off win and his first major at the PGA Championship in August 2017, where he joined the likes of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and McIlroy as the youngest winners at 23. Illustrious company to be in for a rising star of the game.
While Woods has inspired a generation of stars including Spieth and McIlroy, it’s Thomas who has emerged as the influential figure of that group this year and is showing no signs of slowing down.
In the 2017-18 season, Thomas has two victories and five top-10 finishes in 13 starts (with his worst finish a T22 at the Tour of Champions in January), and leads the tour’s FedEx Cup points standings.
With 1,874 points, defending champion Thomas holds a 341-point advantage over Jason Day, with Tiger Woods being the only other player to secure back-to-back FedEX Cups.
He can drive the ball an average of 312 yards, has swagger, confidence, big power game, clutch putting gene and plenty of time to shine.
If he could improve anything it would be driving accuracy – he is 144th this season at 57.74 per cent – but given he unleashes it so far down the fairway, he’s usually able to make the greens anyway (green in regulation is 69.44 per cent at 22nd).
Other areas where he excels on the PGA Tour list are in score average (69.314), eagles (72.0) and birdies (4.48) where he is ranked second, fourth and fifth respectively.
In terms of missed cuts, he has only missed the cut once in 25 tournaments, something that underlines the consistency in his short and long game and his sparkling putting ability.
Johnson’s reign at No1 may have been the longest since Woods in 2010, but for the long term, Thomas’ status at the top is not assured with World No2 Spieth breathing down his neck and set to compete in two events before he plays next.
Thomas plans to return to action at the Memorial in Ohio on May 28 with the biggest challenge being how he backs up his position as the best player in the game.
Incredibly, McIlroy, Day and Spieth didn’t last more than two weeks at No1 the first time they achieved the feat.
It will be interesting to see how Thomas controls the pressure that world No1 brings and the criticism when things go wrong, but based on how he carries himself around the course, he is a composed figure with a quality game and steely confidence.
With the depth of talent coming through in the sport, he will need to win a few more competitions to stay ahead of Spieth and Jon Rahm but for any promising prospect, there’s nothing like a real pressure test to elevate them to one of the game’s greats.