Rory McIlroy is contending again. How much do you trust him?
LOS ANGELES — Most call him Rors, but these days we can call him something slightly different: the Rors-chach test. However you see Rory McIlroy says more about you than it does about him.
The 34-year-old pro has earned plenty of fans in the last 12 months, both for his play and his insistence upon taking a moral high ground as Saudi Arabian investment torqued the professional golf landscape. The process of doing so has earned him a significant amount of detractors, too. It’s the cost of doing business as a front man. Press conference quotes are kept, cut, trimmed, clipped, and ultimately logged in many different versions of On The Record. How many people have backed McIlroy, or bailed on him? It’s impossible to say. How these two sides view McIlroy is, in part, how they’ve viewed the skirmishes between tours the last 12 months.
This week, who you’re for and who you’re against has mostly been put aside. Players have held their strongest opinions in check. McIlroy himself skipped his pre-tournament press conference. There isn’t much left for him to say. What matters most this week, in a lovely reprieve, has been the birdies and bogeys. McIlroy has made far more of the former.
Through two rounds, the Northern Irishman was the first one in the house at eight under, guaranteeing himself a spot in the penultimate pairing on Saturday afternoon. He trails the lead by two.
If it feels like we’ve been here before, that’s because we obviously have. Your faith in McIlroy — be it large or small — is rooted in his repeated attempts to climb the mountaintop. Thirteen months ago, he was in the third-to-last pairing on Saturday at Southern Hills and promptly shot 74. Twelve months ago, he was in the same spot at Brookline and promptly shot 73. Eleven months ago, he played bogey-free from the final pairing at the Open, and still that wasn’t enough. There were the final group spots on the weekend at the Masters in 2018 and 2016. There’s an ever-growing list of backdoor top 10s. The optimists say it’s building toward something and the pessimists call it evidence of something missing.
“I’ve been trying and I’ve come close over the past nine years or whatever it is, and I keep coming back,” McIlroy said Friday. He knows better than anyone. “I feel like I’ve showed a lot of resilience in my career, a lot of ups and downs, and I keep coming back. And whether that means that I get rewarded or I get punched in the gut or whatever it is, I’ll always keep coming back.”
Three times in three sentences there. I keep coming back. He’s right.
McIlroy’s recent form has been no different. Starts that build excitement and finishes that tear it all down. He found himself holding a 54-hole lead at the Memorial earlier this month, only to finish with a Sunday 75. A week later, he was in Canada, just two shots back of 54-hole leader C.T. Pan. Vegas liked his chances better than anyone, but McIlroy surrendered pursuit with four bogeys in his first 12 holes. Do you like seeing another top 10 or are you annoyed it didn’t end in a trophy? Because he’s guy who understands nuance, McIlroy’s answer is not either-or. It’s both.
If we want to get hyper-detailed, we can even note that McIlroy has been so courteous to color inside the lines this week, where LACC’s front nine plays a bit easier than its back. McIlroy has gone 30-30 on the front, only to shoot 35-37 on the back. Which of those results is more important to understanding his chances at this U.S. Open, where there are birdies to be had, but danger seems ever present? It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
The bottom line is he’s doing it again, at an intriguing pace at this intriguing place. During his post-round media session, McIlroy was reminded that he has never won a professional tournament with a single-digit score under par. Could there be something there, he was asked, particularly at a U.S. Open that might have a super-deep winning score? McIlroy slapped that down immediately.
“So if I had shot single digits under at Congressional I would have won,” he said. “If I would have shot single digits under at Kiawah, I would have won. So I think it’s a flawed statistic.”
Of course it’s all more nuanced than we tend to treat it.