Rory McIlroy inspired by Wayne Rooney as he finds form on the greens
Rory McIlroy hasn't scored a rare golfing hat-trick since he memorably sandwiched a World Golf Championship victory between two Major wins in 2014.
Winning the British Open, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the US PGA in successive starts was one of the hottest streaks of golf produced by someone not named Tiger Woods in recent memory.
Now McIlroy is seeking to do it all over again and follow Sunday's stunning Arnold Palmer Invitational win with victory in this week's WGC Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club before going on to complete the career Grand Slam in the Masters at Augusta.
It's a feat that would send him soaring back to world No 1 and when asked what he was feeling now, having insisted he was filled with optimism heading to Bay Hill despite his indifferent results, he smiled and said: "Even more optimism!"
Describing Sunday's final-round 64 as one of the best performances of his career, he hopes it will fire him to new heights.
"I feel like I've crossed that line that I needed to," he said of his progression. "I hadn't won in the past 18 months and it was a real validation. I'm optimistic. Not just the next few weeks but the whole season."
Brad Faxon's putting pep talk somewhat overshadowed the recent work McIlroy has done with coach Michael Bannon.
But there's no denying that their chat triggered that final-round putting bonanza and even prompted mention of Wayne Rooney as an example of what you have to do to get a ball to behave.
"We were talking about triggers - how do you start your putting stroke," McIlroy said of how he ended up mentioning Rooney to Faxon.
"And I sort of said Rooney, before he hits a free-kick or before he hits a penalty, he taps his toe on the ground before he actually starts his run up.
"I noticed it when I shot a Nike commercial with him a few years ago."
McIlroy insisted he didn't know his trigger.
"I do something, whether it's regrip or wiggle my toes or I don't know."
But he does know how to win at matchplay and with 23 wins in this event - of this week's field only Ian Poulter has as many - he's the red-hot favourite.
The 64-strong field has been divided into 16 groups of four with each player playing the other three over 18 holes over the first three days with the 16 group winners progressing to the knockout stage at the weekend.
While defending champion Dustin Johnson and the in-form Justin Thomas, Jason Day and Jon Rahm are the dangermen, McIlroy takes on debutants Peter Uihlein and Brian Harman and Venezuela's Jhonattan Vegas, who failed to get out of his group on his first appearance last year.
Runner-up in 2012 before following his win at Harding Park in 2015 with a run to the semi-finals two years ago, McIlroy plans to play the man rather than the course as a practice run for the Masters, where he feels he has to be ready to react to charges on the leaderboard.
"Even if I hadn't won last week, just to see the signs that my golf game was in good shape would be good enough to me knowing that going into Augusta I was ready to play well," he said ahead of what will be his fourth attempt at completing the career Grand Slam.
"The last three years have gone OK. I've played well. Not well enough. And hopefully I put the last piece of the puzzle in there this year and get it done."
That he's gone from being described three weeks ago by David Duval as less likely than Tiger Woods to win the Masters to being the bookies' favourite, he's got the attention of Jordan Spieth, who is desperate to find some form on the greens.
"I might have been there tied for the favourite with DJ, now I'm not even on the board," joked Spieth, who is grouped with Ryder Cup partner Patrick Reed, Charl Schwartzel and China's Haotong Li.
"This match play could free me up a bit to play more aggressive and putt more aggressively and it could be a trigger for a successful rest of the year, that's what I'm looking forward to."
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