The narrative hasn’t changed: Rory McIlroy is fighting the awkward balance of being driven to snap a seven-year major drought while not trying to be too desperate.
Is there a solution this week at the US Open on a Torrey Pines course where McIlroy has had relative success? Some happy medium that will allow the Holywood champion to play his best golf?
“I guess by being indifferent. Not by not caring, but by not putting myself under pressure that I have to care, I guess is the right way to do it,” McIlroy said Wednesday.
“If I went out and played this golf course any other week, you play free, and it’s just the same thing. You just have to be able to swing with that freedom, and that’s sort of what I’m trying to get back to.
“There’s no surprise that if I do have, say, not a great first day that I’m able to play well the rest of the tournament because that does free you up. It’s like, ‘Okay, well, the bad one’s out of the way, and now I can just sort of freewheel.’ It’s just a matter of freewheeling from the Thursday and not the Friday.”
World No 11 McIlroy is never too far from the conversation at any major, but he’s hardly the centre of attention this week after his struggles with a swing transition at the Masters and his abysmal performance on the par-5s that wrecked his chances in the PGA Championship. Focus at Torrey Pines has centred on Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson and the dynamic between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.
But McIlroy feels closer to changing the narrative that has dogged him since he won his last majors in 2014. He’s changed his driver setup since Kiawah and further honed his swing with Pete Cowen, who said this week that Rory has made real progress on his mechanics and it’s just a matter of going out and trusting it under the stress of a US Open.
McIlroy said he feels more ready to contend this week than he did coming off a victory in his start before the PGA.
“I felt like I played better at Memorial than I did at Quail Hollow — I finished 18th at Memorial and I won Quail Hollow,” he said. “It’s golf at the end of the day and sometimes it’s just unpredictable. I’m feeling good about where my game is.
As a 22-year-old, McIlroy won his first major and only US Open at Congressional 10 years ago. A lot has happened in the intervening decade, yet McIlroy gets a similar vibe when he looks at the test presented by Torrey Pines as he did at Congressional.
“Yeah, probably just a little less going on in my head, I guess, is the best way to describe it,” he said of his mindset 10 years ago. “Probably a little less cynical too. Sometimes I think you can sort of get into that mindset coming into US Opens.
“First time I laid my eyes on Congressional, I thought, you know, I could see myself shooting scores out here. It’s the same as here. You hit fairways, you hit greens, and you can shoot good scores. It’s just a matter of getting into a little more of a positive mindset going into the tournament.” Torrey Pines doesn’t pose any real surprises to players familiar with playing a PGA Tour event here every winter. The rough is a little thicker and the USGA set-up a little tighter and firmer, but in general the veteran players know exactly what to expect from the course.
While the rough is exceedingly lush in places, it’s spotty and has plenty of pockets where it’s not as daunting.
“It’s not as penal as some other US Opens,” McIlroy said. “But I think the set-up’s good. It’s really fair. I’ve heard nothing but positive praise from a lot of the players. It’s nice to come to a venue where we all know it pretty well from sort of being on the PGA Tour schedule. There’s not really any secrets out there.
As for the rough, which Shane Lowry called “too thick”, McIlroy says fortune may favour the bold.
“I think if you see your ball sailing into the rough, you hope you’re just going to get lucky,” he said. “It can settle into the kikuyu, that’s sticky and juicy, or there’s the patches of poa out there that are more of the yellowish, brownish colour, and you hope your ball is going to land in one of those patches and you can get it out onto the green.
“There’s no substitute for hitting the ball off the fairway here. It’s a pure — it’s fairways and greens. It’s a proper US Open test.”