McIlroy steels himself for new challenge: "You've got young, hungry guys now that are fearless"

McIlroy steels himself for new challenge: "You've got young, hungry guys now that are fearless"
 Rory McIlroy of  Northern Ireland watches his tee shot on the first hole during Round Three for the 99th PGA Championship held at Quail Hollow Club on August 12, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Montana Pritchard/PGA of America)

Rory McIlroy of  Northern Ireland watches his tee shot on the first hole during Round Three for the 99th PGA Championship held at Quail Hollow Club on August 12, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Montana Pritchard/PGA of America)

Rory McIlroy sees the next three months as crucial if the next ten years of his career are to be even more successful than his first decade as a professional.

The four-time major winner ended the season winless for the first time since his first full campaign in 2008 and admitted that his final round 72 for a share of 63rd behind Tyrrell Hatton in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship summed up his year.

"Not much happening, good or bad," world No 6 McIlroy said of his day and a year that brought six top-10s from 18 starts, but no wins. 

"Just sort of stuck in neutral. Yeah, hasn't been the year I wanted on the golf course.

"Obviously, I started the year with grand ambitions, trying to add to my major tally and trying to win golf tournaments and get back up near the top of the World Rankings. I obviously have not been able to do that."

McIlroy began the year as world No 2 but while he had two runner-up finishes, the back and rib injury he suffered last January niggled him all season.

In the majors he tied for seventh in the Masters, came back too soon from injury and missed the cut in the US Open, finished tied fourth behind Jordan Spieth in The Open and tied for 22nd in the US PGA.

He also got married to Erica Stoll and parted company with caddie JP Fitzgerald, who was on his bag from July 2008 until The Open at Royal Birkdale before being let go.

Despite that, the 28-year old believes that if he's fully fit, he can achieve more in his second decade as a professional than he did in the first, not just because he is more experienced but because he plans to recover his fitness and improve his wedge game and putting.

"I just feel with the experience I have now, I'm definitely a better player I feel than the player that won some of those tournaments and some of those majors," he said of his 21 career wins, including four majors. 

"I feel like I'm a much better player now than I was in 2010 and 2012 when I was able to win a couple of majors.

"I see no reason why I can't better that in the next ten years and that's why I feel like these three months are very important for me to put some really good things in place and step away and just reassess everything and reassess where I'm at and where I need to be."

McIlroy made no secret of the fact that he faces new challenges now in the shape of young stars such as Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, to name just three.

"You know, the landscape of the game has changed a bit since I started to win majors," he said. 

"You've got young, hungry guys now that are fearless, basically, and they are playing the game how I basically came out and played a few years ago. 

"It's just about trying to gain an advantage here or there, so just reassessing everything and making sure I'm sort of not leaving any stone unturned and do everything I can to get back to the best player in the world."

McIlroy plans a full NCT on his body before hitting the practice ground again so that he is fully prepared to start the 2018 season.

"I feel even though I haven't won and the results haven't been what I have wanted, I feel like I can still salvage something from the rest of the year," he said. 

"Even though I'm not playing, I've given myself the opportunity to put a lot of good foundations in place going forward. That's what I'm going to concentrate on from now until the end of the year.

"I think there's a lot of areas of my game that need sharpening: Wedge play, putting would be the two main areas that I need to get better. I feel like my iron play sort of came on the last few weeks.

"I've been working a little bit on Trackman, obviously saw some good signs last week at Close House. I didn't really play that well this week but still, it was nice to feel like I was in the hunt at some stage at the end of the season there. Basically, all areas of my game could get a little bit better.

"But you know, what that's a few weeks away. I won't start hitting balls until the end of November, so really the next few weeks is just in the gym and rehab and getting my body right to be able to go into that practice and be able to start 2018 strongly."