When Rory McIlroy blew the lead and his chance to win his first major title at the 2011 Masters, he was so heartbroken that he ended up sobbing into the phone to his mother, convinced he’d let his one chance to win a major slip through his hands.
Yet just a few months later, McIlroy wept tears of joy when he blitzed the field by eight strokes at Congressional Country Club to make the US Open his first of four major championship triumphs.
Fast-forward to this spring when McIlroy limped home with a final-round 75 at Augusta National on April 7, and squandered his latest chance to win the Masters, the one major he desperately covets to complete the career Grand Slam.
McIlroy again plunged into a state of despair, spending the next week at home binge-watching the Showtime series Billions, reading the books The Chimp Paradox and Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and drinking a few bottles of wine.
“No, I don’t mean it like that. That sounds really bad. It wasn’t that bad,” said McIlroy, putting a stop to any headlines before they could be written that he had been drinking away his sorrows.
“But yeah, it got to the point where (wife) Erica had to drag me out of the house and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do something.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And once I got back in my sort of routine, I was fine.” With his Masters hangover behind him, could the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club be a case of deja vu for McIlroy? To former Open Championship winner David Duval it all depends on where McIlroy, 29, is mentally.
“Is he in a good place? Is he calm and looking forward to the challenges and the hair pulling that Shinnecock can make players do? It’s never a surprise to see Rory McIlroy playing great golf and contending,” Duval said.
“I’d be surprised more than anything if he’s not a part of the mix.”
But here’s the rub: since McIlroy’s victory at Congressional on a soggy track, he’s missed the cut in three of six US Opens, including two in a row, and only has one top-10 finish to show for his efforts in 2015 at Chambers Bay in Washington.
“And that was at a place where you could land 747s in the fairways length-wise and width-wise,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said.
McIlroy enters the 118th US Open with a mixed bag of results since the Masters. He never factored in the trophy hunt at the Wells Fargo Championship, finishing T-16, and then missed the cut at The Players Championship.
After grabbing the 36-hole lead at the BMW PGA Championship, he played bogey-free on the weekend but Italy’s Francesco Molinari pipped him for the title, and in McIlroy’s last start two weeks ago at The Memorial, the Co Down man claimed a back-door T-6 finish after barely surviving the 36-hole cut.
Since then, McIlroy has spent an enjoyable 10 days on the south shore of eastern Long Island playing some of its landmark courses, including a couple of rounds at National Golf Links of America and Friar’s Head Golf Club, which both rank among the top-10 courses on virtually every list of America’s best.
“I think it’s definitely one of the best areas in the world in terms of golf courses,” he said. “So I had a bit of fun doing that.”
McIlroy did the math and said he’s played 18 of the last 19 days. He’s logged several rounds around Shinnecock Hills, too, and with his preparation complete, he’s raring to go early this morning alongside Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson at 8.02am (1.02pm Irish time) in a grouping of the three golfers missing one leg of the career Grand Slam.
“It sort of reminds me of some of the courses from back home a bit, the way the golf course had been playing,” he said of the links-style course with Peconic Bay to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south.
McIlroy termed Shinnecock a second-shot golf course, one that requires thought and finesse rather than brute strength, and said he will take a conservative approach off the tee.
After playing the course in a southwest wind on Tuesday, he adjusted the number of drivers he plans to hit from seven or eight to three or four, knowing that to drive it crooked is to court unending struggle for the remainder of a hole.
“I think the biggest challenge is being disciplined, just really sticking to your game plan,” McIlroy said.
Even when McIlroy took off Saturday as a day of rest, he walked Shinnecock with a wedge and putter.
Whether those clubs, especially his putter, are friend or foe may determine his fate and whether he can bounce back from April’s disappointment as well as he did back in 2011.
“He is putting better, much better, and he’s got better speed,” Chamblee said.
“I don’t think he’s had a go at a US Open where he’s putted like a kid and what a great place for him to do it and see if he can win under firm, fast conditions where typically he’s been less than at his best.”
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