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Rory McIlroy’s secret vision for the US Open is alive

Rory McIlroy looks into his first round of the US Open at Pinehurst No.

Darren Riehl

PINEHURST, NC — Rory McIlroy won the US Open so long ago that you’d be forgiven for forgetting. His victory in the tournament came 13 years ago at the long, wet Clubland Country Club – a course so unreliable in the modern game that it was overhauled in 2019, its lowest winning score seemingly empty.

Congressional CC needed some kind of robotic, sky-high game that week, and McIlroy had it. He had it everything of it. He won by eight shots, his first major. No one punished him with circumstances. You’re playing the course in front of you, though. But it was the opposite of Pinehurst No. 2 – the monster he’s facing this week – and he knows it.

“If you look at the US Open that I won in ’11, it was like the PGA Championship instead of the normal US Open setup,” McIlroy said Thursday, after carding a 65 for a share of the lead.

The difference between that week and this one is the legend of McIlroy’s career. He won that week with everything. Long drives, high irons, very high wedges, soggy turf sucking the ball whenever it decides to return to earth. (Ironically, the underclassman that week was Patrick Cantlay, the same guy who shot a 65 at Pinehurst.) Hitting it high and hitting it far and throwing his spinny ball into place was McIlroy’s style. It worked at the 2011 US Open and got him his favorite parking spot just outside the clubhouse this week. But it hasn’t worked since then.

US Opens are all about scrubbing the green and putting the ball down. When the USGA does it right, the ball either curls at an alarming rate or at an alarming speed. The US Opens are all about driving that ball down the floor skillfully, and clubs without a lob wedge. It’s about the concrete greens and the surroundings and, as we’ve seen many times during the first round, ping-ponging goes around the course from one side to the other and makes a 7, then takes seven breaths.

At some point a decade ago, McIlroy saw all that. He realized that he couldn’t fight it. It may have come with a punch in the mouth – missed cuts in 2016, 2017 and 2018 – but there is a lesson learned. If he wanted to win another US Open, if he wanted to win this test of golf, he had to be a different player.

“I think I really changed my mind [U.S. Opens] in 2019, that of Pebble, and since then I started to enjoy this style of golf more,” he said.

Notably, he is the only player in the field with five straight US Open top 10s.

McIlroy says Pinehurst No. 2, hard and fiery, reminding him of the golf links he grew up on. And before academics accuse him of comparing the sandhills of North Carolina to the coast of Northern Ireland, he’s not wrong. It’s hard and dry there with the slanted greens, just as it’s hard and dry here with the slippery greens. Only Pinehurst doesn’t need wind to protect its architectural beauty. The 21-year-old McIlroy may not have fully understood it. But the modern McIlroy is learning about course structures now more than ever.

He says: “I am also a student of the game. You think it helps. Who are we to disagree?

As for showing it, Thursday may have been a sign. During this round, he wasn’t asked to show creativity with a 4-iron, or a deft touch from a greenside bunker, or a bump-and-run 8-iron. He hit mostly every green (15 of 18) and mostly every fairway (11 of 14). He played a boring round of golf that he usually admires. You hit the greens and you hit the putts carefully and sometimes the hole gets in the way. He finished with, by his count, “good” two putts on 11, 12, 13 and 14.

“I was in this race to hit it to 20 and double,” he said, pausing to add the number. “I actually had a good two-putt on 15.”

That would infuriate the young, impatient McIlroy. Hitting his pants and nothing coming out of them. Nothing but parameters. But then he bogeyed one for birdie on 16, added a putt-putt par on 17, and was so ready to accept another putt-putt par on 18 that he started walking after his first stroke before it was corrected.

Several thousand people circled the 18th hole, but McIlroy may have been more surprised to see his ball land in the middle. Another birdie, pushing him to 5 under for the day and tied for the lead. The kind of break winners need.

As the years approach this major – zero wins in his last 37 attempts – it never seems like McIlroy is still a work in progress. His extreme public opinion changes every few months, and he’s not afraid to admit it. She publicly ended her marriage last month, but the divorce is now final. He is in the process of taking his life to England and moving the PGA Tour into the future. He does a lot. Is it any wonder he says he’s more focused when he’s inside the ropes?

When he enters big churches like this one, he likes to choose a certain idea. This week he’s trying to be “super stoic,” no matter what happens with his golf ball. Even-keeled and stoic. Playing US Open golf with a US Open brain.

If he gets it right, McIlroy will know he may have posted his best score of the week. The golf course is growing tough, physically, given the intense sunshine (and lack of rain) it will receive over the next three days. Thursday 65 may equal Sunday 69 by the end of the week. The old McIlroy may have scoffed at that, but this one seems ready for him.

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