Here we go again? Rory McIlroy is contending in another major
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Rory McIlroy, eloquent man of many words, was struggling to describe this version of the Open Championship. Then he showed off that vocabulary like only he can, settling on “fiddliest.” This is the fiddliest Open he’s ever played. Or, borrowing from Merriam and Webster, neither of which were golfers, this is the Open that has required the most attention to detail. Firm, fast, fiddly.
And fun, we can only assume. After all, it started with a 55-foot birdie putt that dropped on the 1st and ended with a casual two-putt birdie on the 18th. He shot six-under 66 and trails Cameron Young by two, but sits alone in second place.
McIlroy looked a bit tired when he settled on fiddly, perhaps because in a solid wind, the Old Course has become a true thinking man’s golf course. The breeze isn’t immense, but it hits you all day long, kicking up dust when the masses move about. The lies are as tight as he’s ever seen in St. Andrews.
“Some of the lies are so bare that, again, going back to that second shot on 17, I felt like if I had a full lob wedge there and if I didn’t get it quite right, I could have thinned the thing into the middle of town,” McIlroy said.
Instead, he tugged a gap wedge that barely reached the green before rolling back short left of the hole.
“Again, you’re up there leading the Open Championship and you’re worried about hitting a lob wedge out of bounds because of a bare lie off the fairway,” he said. “It’s tricky.”
We don’t need a dictionary for that one. This version of the Old Course, looking to stand the test of time, is certainly tricky. The fairways are more firm than the greens, and the greens are firming up, too. McIlroy noticed that in spots today. Players and commentators are calling it one of the firmest tournament setups they’ve ever seen. The rough isn’t as penal, but it’s still rough, and in some spots it’s been watered for weeks. The setup includes pin positions McIlroy has never seen before, and some players are calling a few unfair.
You’re forgiven for not caring about any of that. Forgiven for thinking Here we go again with this McIlroy guy. He’s wowed the golf world here before, opening with a 63 in 2010, only to implode with 80 strokes in his second round. He’s wowed us all over, really, most recently at the Canadian Open in June. He’s even wowed us at major championships this season, at Augusta National in April with a final round that Collin Morikawa called “near flawless” when he was reminded of it Thursday. McIlroy started hot at the PGA Championship a month later, leading after Day 1. He was even better at the U.S. Open, starting 67-69. But if we can borrow that word from him — all of these major championships are fiddly. They all require shrewd attention to detail. And McIlroy even admitted it in the moments that followed, “fiddly hasn’t really been my forte over the years.”
Besides fiddly and tricky, McIlroy used another word of interest Thursday: settled. It might best explain his chances to finally make good on all these good-not-great major performances.
“Everything feels very settled. No real issues with my game. Everything feels like it’s in good shape,” he said. “Everything feels just sort of nice and quiet, which is a nice way to be.”
It is a nice way to be. But the longer this goes at the 150th Open at one of the oldest courses in the world in St. Freaking Andrews, things do not stay quiet.
The fans who piled into the triple-decker hospitality suite on the 14th were rather reserved Thursday afternoon, milling about, not all dialed in to the golf. Only one man drew them out to the balcony to stand five-deep as he walked by: McIlroy. Three hundred yards away, the fans surrounding the 15th tee box stewed, watching the man in the yellow sweater from afar. By the time he came through, they had shuffled up enough dirt and turf that the wind created a mini McIlroy dust storm. Photographers spent the next five minutes cleaning their lenses. A marshal behind that tee, who has watched champions stroll through for the last four Opens at the Old Course, discussed the pandemonium that could take place if McIlroy were to actually get it done this week.
“He’s from Northern Ireland,” the marshal said. “But we’d treat him like our own.”
You got the feeling that “we” wasn’t just locals, but golf fans everywhere.