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Rory McIlroy, championing mental health at Olympics, in medal contention with strong Round 2

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KAWAGOE, Japan — During his final two tee shots from the 14th hole at Royal St. George's for The Open Championship earlier this month, Rory McIlroy was so inside his own head he knew the shots were doomed by the time he stepped into the box.

After the tournament, he neglected his clubs for nearly a full week. With a Monday morning flight, he waited until Saturday afternoon to “reconnect” himself to his bag.

"I needed to get away," McIlroy said Friday at Kasumigaseki Country Club, site of the men's golf stroke play at these Olympics. "It was a busy stretch of golf through there. I just, mentally, wasn’t in the right place to play my best golf just in terms of worrying too much where not to hit it."

McIlroy's second-round 66 moved him to 7-under in a tie for seventh among a group of contenders chasing American Xander Schauffele, who sits at 11-under heading into Saturday's third round.

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Representing Ireland at the Games, where conversations about mental health have moved to the forefront in the wake of Simone Biles removing herself from competition to while confronting that health issue, McIlroy is no stranger to external forces having an affect on his mentality.

Rory McIlroy (Ireland) prepares to putt on the eighteenth hole during round two of the men's individual stroke play of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Rory McIlroy (Ireland) prepares to putt on the eighteenth hole during round two of the men's individual stroke play of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

It was in the lead-up to the Rio Games in 2016 when the media derided McIlroy, first for his decision to pull out of the tournament over Zika virus concerns, and then for his comments about "growing the game."

But he made it to Japan for the next Olympics, and after shooting a 2-under 69 on Thursday in the first round had some words of support for Biles and others who have prioritized mental health.

"Just as I thought (what) Naomi Osaka was right to do what she did at the French Open and get herself in the right place, I 100 percent agree with what Simone is doing as well," he said. "You have to put yourself in the best position physically and mentally to be at your best. If you don’t feel like you’re at that or in that position, you’re going to have to make those decisions. But I’m certainly impressed, especially with those two women, to do what they did to put themselves first."

McIlory, who lives in the United States, watched as commercials and NBC billed the Tokyo Games as ‘The Simone Biles Olympics.’

"To have the weight of 300 and whatever million (people), the weight on her shoulders is just massive," the five-time major winner said.

Needing a green jacket to complete the career grand slam, McIlroy is faced with a somewhat similar pressure every year at Augusta.

"That’s a part of the job. Is it unpleasant at times for me? Yes," the five-time Ryder Cup participant said. "But that’s just a part of what I do and where I find myself in my career."

McIlroy recently watched a press conference in which Serena Williams attempted to explain what Osaka was going through.

"You have to know when enough’s enough," he said.

Over the years, McIlroy said, he's added more "tools to his toolbox." Removing social media was one tactic.

"I think one of the big reasons why people are talking so much about mental health right now is because how prevalent social media is," he said. "There is a correlation there. I think removing myself from that has been a massive step forward for me."

In addition to naming Biles and Osaka, McIlroy shouted out former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and NBA player Kevin Love for moving the mental health topic forward over the years.

"The conversation, it’s not taboo anymore," he said. "People can talk about it and, just as someone has a knee injury or an elbow injury, if you don’t feel right, 100 percent mentally, that’s an injury too.

"I think in sports there’s still this notion of parring through it and digging in and you’re not a competitor unless you get through these things. So that’s probably a part of it. But then when you hear the most-decorated Olympian ever talk about his struggles and probably the greatest gymnast ever talk about her struggles, then it encourages more people that have felt that way to come out and share how they feel."

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympics golf: Rory McIlroy contends for gold, champions mental health

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