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The new love interest in Rory McIlroy's life -- golf

By By Chris Murphy CNN
Published On: Jul 16 2014 04:37:59 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 16 2014 09:25:43 AM CDT
Rory McIlroy

Brian Blanco/Reuters

(CNN) -

Rory McIlroy has a smile on his face again, and it is all to do with a new love in his life -- golf.

After reams of column inches devoted to his split with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki, the two-time major champion has decided to go back to basics in order to fill the void.

As he heads for the third major of the year -- The British Open in Liverpool that begins Thursday -- he's been busy stalking the links courses of his native Northern Ireland and rekindling his passion for the game.

"I've sort of fallen in love with golf again," the current world No. 8 told CNN's Living Golf show.

"I'm a golfer first and foremost and the last month or so I've really buried my head in my golf game.

"Golf is my first passion and my first love and it's great to be able to spend days playing and remember where you started again, remembering those rounds at Holywood Golf Club," he added referring to his local club in Northern Ireland.

"Just remembering the love and the joy you have for the game. I feel like I've found that out these last few weeks."

The 25-year-old's decision to call off his planned wedding to Danish tennis star Wozniacki predictably sparked a maelstrom in the press.

Two high profile sporting stars, known the world over, ending their engagement just days after wedding invitations had been issued became headline news.

A bereft looking McIlroy fronted up at Wentworth ahead of the BMW PGA Championship in May merely hours after the news broke, and promptly won the European Tour's flagship event.

That triumph represented his first big win on European soil, his other victories on the Tour coming either in the Middle East or Asia.

The 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 U.S. PGA champion spoke of the "sanctuary" the course offered away from all the questions about his state of mind and emotional well-being.

And a large chunk of his time since has been spent honing his game on the links courses of his homeland in preparation for his assault on another prestigious crown -- The British Open.

Despite being brought up on courses similar to the one he'll try to tame at Royal Liverpool in the 143rd incarnation of golf's oldest major, McIlroy has struggled to make an impression since 2010.

But that is something he is determined to change this time around.

"I feel like my record in the British Open hasn't been great," he explained.

"It's important to prepare to play links golf, to know the course as much as you can.

"I finished third at St Andrew's in 2010 but apart from that I haven't done much. I want to really put all I can into it and try and compete this year.

"I don't want to curse my luck but it was incredibly windy on the Friday afternoon (at St Andrew's, where McIlroy followed up his opening round of 63 with a second round 80).

"It was my first time leading a major after the first round and I didn't really handle it that well but I came back well and at the weekend I shot a couple of rounds in the 60s.

As well as Holywood Golf Club, McIlroy has spent time honing his game at Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

"I've been getting as much practice around the greens because that's where you have a lot of variety and play shots you normally don't play on tour," he said.

"Ireland and Northern Ireland have some of the best links courses in the world so to not take advantage of that would be a shame."

After that third place finish in 2010, McIlroy's form at The British Open has lurched ever further backwards.

He finished 25th at Royal St George's in 2011, as compatriot Darren Clarke lifted the Claret Jug, then 60th at Royal Lytham the following year.

Last time out, at Muirfield in Scotland, McIlroy endured a miserable start, shooting 79 on the opening day and describing himself as "brain dead" in a typically frank press conference immediately after.

It was one of the low points in a slump that saw him relinquish the world No. 1 ranking and fend off persistent questions as to whether his equipment deal with Nike had disrupted his game.

And though he missed the cut after a round of 75 on the second day, he took some valuable lessons from his playing partner on the opening two days, and eventual winner, Phil Mickelson.

"I played with Phil Mickelson for two rounds at Muirfield last year and I was really impressed with the way he controlled his ball flight," McIlroy said.

"He was bouncing balls into the green, getting the ball on the ground as soon as possible and I feel that's something I need to do more of.

"Back when I was an amateur I was used to playing links golf much more so you are much more comfortable playing those shots.

"Now as a pro most weeks you're playing everything through the air and trying to adapt your game for these two weeks a year.

"That's why I'm going to try and practice those shots so when the time comes I'm comfortable with them."

McIlroy does have some memories of the course at Hoylake, having played there as a teenager, but they can't be classed as fond ones.

"I actually played at Hoylake in 2003 in the British boys as a 14-year-old and got beaten in the first round," he said.

"That was the first and last time I have played the course. It's quite a flat golf course. I like the bunkering -- the faces look at you off the tee so you have a good visualization and good definition of where you need to hit the ball round there.

"I remember watching The Open in 2006 and how hot and burnt it was, Tiger (Woods) taking an iron off every tee and going on to win.

"I'm looking forward to seeing it again. I think it's a course from what I remember should set up pretty well for me depending on the conditions."

As he rekindles his love for golf, another important relationship in McIlroy's personal life has also deepened.

He and Jack Nicklaus -- the greatest golfer of all time with 18 majors to his name -- are neighbors in Florida, and McIlroy is a member at the 74-year-old's Bear's Club.

And that means McIlroy has the ear of one of the most important opinions in the game.

"Jack has always been so generous with his time, we've formed quite a nice friendship over the last few years," he explained.

"Being a member of his club in Palm Beach we've talked a lot. Most of the time it's about golf and how to handle certain situations. The (most recent) meeting was how he manages his time.

"All the things he had to manage on the course and still dedicate himself to his game. Finding a balance in life in a way.

"It's always nice to spend some time with him, if nothing else it inspires you to go out and be better, practice and be a better player.

"I think he gets me and I do too. A lot of the things he says really make sense."