SAN DIEGO – A decade has passed since Rory McIlroy confirmed his Boy Wonder status with a dominating eight-stroke victory at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club.
“First time I laid my eyes on Congressional, I thought, you know, I could see myself shooting scores out here,” McIlroy said during his pre-tournament press conference ahead of the 121st U.S. Open at the South Course at Torrey Pines. “It’s the same as here.”
But for McIlroy to end his major championship drought, he needs to avoid another case of Thursday-itis. Since his last major triumph at the 2014 PGA Championship, McIlroy is a combined 35 over in Round 1 and 60 under the rest of the week.
“Probably just putting a little too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being a little tentative,” McIlroy said in describing his first-round failures.
How to fix that mindset is a challenge all its own, and it is one that McIlroy has tried to address with the help of noted mental coach Bob Rotella.
“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. If I went out and played this golf course any other week, you play free, and it’s just the same thing,” McIlroy explained. “As I said, 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. It’s just a matter of freewheeling from the Thursday and not the Friday.”
During each media stop that McIlroy made, he reiterated that his game is in a good place. He spent several days working out some technical and mechanical kinks in his swing with instructor Pete Cowen. At the Masters in April, McIlroy was still in the middle of making swing changes and missed the cut.
“It wasn’t a great week,” he said in summary.
In his next start, he looked like the McIlroy of old as he claimed the Wells Fargo Championship yet again, and became the odds-on-favorite at the PGA Championship at Kiawah. He finished T-49.
“I felt like coming in here there was still parts of my game that I needed to sharpen up, and obviously those parts were exposed this week in the wind and on a tough course,” he said after the fact.
“I struggled on the left-to-right winds there. So even from the first tee shot on Thursday, hitting it into the water on 10. Since then, I’ve changed my driver setup a little bit, and I feel a lot more comfortable with that.”
McIlroy rued his sloppy play on the par 5s at Kiawah, noting that if he’d played them the way champion Phil Mickelson had, he would have been the one hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy instead.
“You know, I won a tournament four or five weeks ago, so it’s there,” McIlroy said.
Torrey Pines is a course he and many of the players in the field know well and where there is a premium on long, accurate driving that fits into his wheelhouse. Stats guru Justin Ray noted that since 1990, only Tiger Woods has a better scoring average than McIlory (69.33) in the Farmers Insurance Open, Torrey Pines’ annual PGA Tour event. And as for McIlroy’s confidence after what looked on paper to be an unspectacular week at the Memorial two weeks ago, where he failed to shoot in the 60s all four rounds, he viewed it differently.
“Walking off Muirfield Village a couple Sundays ago, I said to Harry, ‘I felt like I played better at Memorial than I did at Quail Hollow.’ I finished 18th at Memorial and I won Quail Hollow,” McIlroy said. “It’s golf at the end of the day and sometimes it’s just unpredictable.”
Indeed, it is. Of the nine former U.S. Open champions playing in this week’s major, McIlroy has won it the longest ago. Ten years have come and gone and McIlroy hopes this week to channel some of what made his U.S. Open romp at Congressional look so effortless.
“Just a little less going on in my head, I guess, is the best way to describe it. Probably a little less cynical too,” he said. “Sometimes I think you can sort of get into that mindset coming into U.S. Opens.”
Especially on Thursdays.