Rory McIlroy drives his way to No. 1

AKRON, Ohio -- For the true golf geeks, for the ones who follow the intricacies of a golfer and his equipment and the sometimes maddening twists and turns of what goes in and out of his golf bag, Rory McIlroy's run of recent excellence may be traced to last fall.

That's when he settled on the Nike driver and ball combination he is using now, no small aspect of his impressive game at the moment.

All the angst in the aftermath of his high-profile, mega-millions endorsement deal that kicked off 2013 but started a run of negative headlines concerning his game seems a distant memory now.

"I've never driven the ball better," said McIlroy, whose victory Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational hammered home that point in emphatic fashion.

Now the No. 1-ranked player in the world following his 2-stroke victory over Sergio Garcia, McIlroy has put on an impressive driving display in back-to-back victories at the Open Championship and here at Firestone Country Club.

And it's a thing of beauty when McIlroy is on, his drives soaring into the sky, landing out of sight. McIlroy led the field in driving distance this week, averaging 317 yards off the tee. And he was tied for first in greens in regulation, hitting 57 of 72 for the week.

Throw in a solid week on the greens and that's tough to beat.

"Well, the way I approach it is the longer the club, the harder it is to hit. So if you're hitting arguably the hardest club in your bag to hit that well, then the other stuff should sort of fall in line or fall into place," McIlroy said. "I feel like that's what has happened.

"Whenever I drive the ball well, I always put myself in positions where I can attack flags and try and make birdies, but when I'm swinging it well with a driver, that sort of funnels through the rest of my game. If I'm swinging well with a driver, more than likely, I'm swinging well with everything else.

"Obviously I get a lot of confidence with that."

McIlroy, 25, came here determined not to be satisfied with his Open victory. A hangover of sorts could have been expected, and nobody would have faulted McIlroy for enjoying the view, going through the motions, and preparing for next week's PGA Championship in Louisville, Kentucky.

But knowing he was playing well and being a fan of Firestone, McIlroy wanted to build off the victory and keep pushing. And when he birdied the first three holes on Sunday, he had already turned a 3-shot deficit into a 1-stroke lead.

His final-round 66 was enough to overtake Garcia, who could manage just a 1-over 71 -- one of just two players in the top 10 to shoot over par.

McIlroy became the first player since Tiger Woods in 2006 to follow up a victory in a major championship with a win in his next start.

"That's the most pleasing thing about this week is not dwelling on what happened at Hoylake and just keep moving forward," he said. "That's what I'll have to do after this as well. I've just got to keep moving forward. I've got plenty of time at the end of the year to celebrate all these successes."

No doubt. Another major awaits, and at a Valhalla course that McIlroy has never seen.

He'll be back to work on Monday -- and feeling pretty good about finding the formula in his golf bag that has paid off handsomely in recent weeks.