Rory McIlroy watches a tee shot during a practice round at Oak Hill Country… (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images )
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It seemed fitting that Rory McIlroy played nine practice holes with Sergio Garcia on Wednesday at Oak Hill Country Club.
Though the former world No. 1 probably won't use this week to reprise Garcia's famous sprint-and-scissors kick during the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, Ill., McIlroy is scouring his past for ways to return the joy to his game.
"Everyone sees when I walk and I'm playing well, I have that little bounce in my step," McIlroy said on Wednesday, the eve of the 95th PGA Championship. "I'm trying to get that positive energy back."
McIlroy need only rewind one year to find it. His victory at last year's PGA marked his second major championship and anointed him as Tiger Woods' new tormentor.
Instead, the Northern Irishman has failed to record a victory in 2013, has just four top-10 finishes and zigzagged his way through two rounds of last month's British Open before failing to make the cut.
"There have been times where I've thought about my swing a little bit too much," McIlroy said. "And that has prevented me from playing the way I want to play, which is that carefree, free-flowing game that I usually have. There have been times this year where I've really gotten down on myself. That hasn't helped at all, and that's something I'm trying to get better at."
That McIlroy's year has featured more headlines off the course than on hasn't helped. There was his much-publicized switch to Nike equipment and split with his management team. He drew criticism for walking off the course at the Honda Classic, citing a toothache. And his relationship with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki gets analyzed enough to make the staff of "Access Hollywood" blush.
Still, McIlroy has dropped only to third behind Woods and Phil Mickelson in the world rankings. And he insists his confidence is higher than it has been all season after watching video of last year's victory at Kiawah Island, S.C.
Those viewings weren't just for technical reasons.
"It's body language, how you carry yourself, your little mannerisms," McIlroy said.
Reflective sometimes to a fault, McIlroy admitted to regretting his decision to golf a light schedule at the start of this year. But he refused to let the equipment-switch story line linger.
"It was a valid point at the start of the year," McIlroy said. "I don't think it's a valid point now. I mean, it's nine months in. Of course there's going to be a transition period. But now I'm really happy with everything that I've got in my bag."
Woods, who hasn't won a major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open, and Mickelson, who won his fifth major at the British Open at Muirfield, both have shown form that could keep McIlroy from repeating in this event.
Woods is coming off a seven-shot victory in the Bridgestone Invitational, his fifth victory of the season, though he remains stuck at 14 major championships. He flirted with a 59 in his second round in last weekend's victory. Mickelson shot a 66 in the final round at Muirfield for his second victory of the season.
This week, Woods downplayed talk of a rivalry with Mickelson; Mickelson acknowledged that competing against Woods is a bit different for him.
"I feel like he brings out the best golf in me," Mickelson said. "He's helped me work hard. He's helped me put forth the effort to try to compete at the highest level year in and year out. I've loved competing against him."
Putting has been Woods' downfall in the majors this season. He has ranked 147th and 151st in putting during Rounds 3 and 4 in this year's majors.
"Frustrating part is I've been there and didn't win two of the tournaments I was right there in," Woods said, alluding to the Masters and British Open.
Woods has now gone his last 17 starts in majors without a win. "Probably half of those Sundays for the last five years, I've had a chance and just haven't won it," Woods said. "The key is to keep giving myself chances, and eventually I'll start getting them."