In Rory McIlroy’s last 24 majors, he has only fired five first rounds in the 60s and 13 of 72 or more
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It would be a mistake to say Rory McIlroy did not care when he teed it up in the 2011 US Open. Aged just 22, the Northern Irishman was only two months removed from blowing a four-shot lead in the final round of the Masters and he was desperate to prove the demons had not taken permanent residence.
Yet neither did that week at Congressional mean everything to that swaggering young man. Now, after seven years without a major, the 32-year-old is desperate to rekindle that laissez faire attitude and sprint out of the gates on Thursday to ensure that he is not playing another forlorn game of catch-up.
Thursdays matter. In the last 40 majors, 31 of the champions have started in the 60s and only two have shot worse than a 72.
In McIlroy’s last 24 majors – since he won his fourth at the 2014 USPGA – he has only fired five first rounds in the 60s and 13 of 72 or more. That is more than half. McIlroy is a combined 35-over in the first round in this period. He is a cumulative 62-under for the other rounds.
The tortoise-out-of-the-traps act is a weakness he is prepared to recognise as the world No 11 sets out at the beautiful South Course at Torrey Pines. “I’ve probably been putting too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being a little tentative,” McIlroy explained.
How does he address this astonishing anomaly? “I guess by being indifferent,” he said. “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.
“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, OK, well, the bad one’s out of the way, and now I can just sort of freewheel.
“I think 2011 was only my third US Open. I played OK at Bethpage in ’09, I missed the cut at Pebble in ’10 and, yeah, there was just a little less going on in my head. That’s the best way to describe it. I was less cynical too. It’s about having that mentality that I had as a 22-year-old.”
McIlroy says he has slightly changed his driver set-up
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Perhaps he should take satisfaction from the betting markets. William Hill report that the last time that it had McIlroy at 22-1 before was when he was 20 in 2010. He is not even in the top five of the William Hill market.
In truth, it is hard to disagree, despite McIlroy winning on his third most recent start at the Wells Fargo Championship last month. McIlroy scraped into the top 50 at the USPGA and put in a satisfactory performance at the Memorial tournament earlier this month.
Since 2019, he is a combined 32-under at the Farmers Insurance Open – Torrey’s regular, early-season Tour stop – and in this stretch only Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed have fared better. However, this is an unrecognisable test in June compared to January.
“It’s certainly different, but it’s really good and fair,” McIlroy said.
“Obviously, with the dry southern California climate, the greens have the possibility to get very firm, so I think the USGA will have taken that in mind.
“The rough is playable. You can hit it in there and at least have a chance to get it up around the green and sort of use your short game to scramble and save par. It’s not as penal as some other US Opens. I’ve heard nothing but positive praise from a lot of the players. There’s not really any secrets out there.”
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McIlroy will be delighted that he is not commanding the brunt of the focus. Phil Mickelson, who turned 51 on Wednesday, is determined not to rest on the laurels of becoming the oldest winner of a major at the US PGA and, as perverse as he is, craves to overshadow that achievement by becoming just the sixth player in history to complete the grand slam.
It is an accolade he deserves, particularly as he has finished second in the US Open on six occasions. San Diego is his hometown and if it’s possible to eclipse Tiger Woods’s legendary winning-on-one-leg glory at 2008 then that would be it.
If not the left-hander, the cameras will be trained on Bryson DeChambeau, the defending champion and Brooks Koepka, who has won two of the last three US Opens in which he has competed. The pair’s petty spat has become the main talking point in the locker room and there will be TV executives praying for them to play together at the weekend – if possible down Sunday’s stretch.
There are also some delicious subplots. Paul Casey is ranked 19 in the world and Matt Fitzpatrick is 20th and they are fighting over representing Team GB at the Olympics, with this week the cut-off. McIlroy is already booked in to represent Ireland in Tokyo, but he has rather higher ambitions and Pete Cowen, his new coach, has been impressed by their recent work.
“At Augusta, I was still in the middle of a transition with my swing, and at Kiawah, I felt like I went into the week playing pretty well but I struggled on the left-to-right winds. Since then, I’ve changed my driver set-up a little bit, and I feel a lot more comfortable. It would be nice to get off to a good start.”