Rory McIlroy’s secret U.S. Open vision is coming to life

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy looks on during his first round of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

Darren Riehl

PINEHURST, N.C. — Rory McIlroy won a U.S. Open so long ago you’d be forgiven if you forgot. His triumph in this tournament came 13 years ago on a long, wet Congressional Country Club — a course so distrusted by the modern game that it was renovated in 2019, its winning scores so low it was viewed as not up to snuff. 

Congressional CC required a specific type of robotic, through-the-sky game that week, and McIlroy had it. He had all of it. He won by eight shots, his first major. No one penalized him for the circumstances. You play the course in front of you, however it is. But it was so diametrically opposite to Pinehurst No. 2 — the beast he faces this week — and he knows it. 

“If you look at the U.S. Open that I did win in ’11, it was more like a PGA Championship rather than a typical U.S. Open setup,” McIlroy said Thursday, after carding 65 for a share of the lead. 

The difference between that week and this one is a bit of the tale of McIlroy’s career. He won that week with towering everything. Towering drives, towering irons, towering-towering wedges, the soggy turf sucking hold of the ball whenever it decided to return to the earth. (Ironically, the low amateur that week was Patrick Cantlay, the other guy who shot 65 at Pinehurst.) Hitting it high and hitting it far and plunging his spinny ball into the turf was McIlroy’s style. It worked at the 2011 U.S. Open and it earned him a preferred parking spot just outside the clubhouse this week. But it hasn’t worked since.

U.S. Opens are about the rub of the green and the ball on the ground. If the USGA is doing it right, the ball on the ground is either rolling in a scary direction or at a scary pace. U.S. Opens are about urging that ball along the ground creatively, and with clubs other than the lob wedge. They’re about concrete greens and testy surrounds and, as we saw plenty of times during the first round, ping-ponging around a course from one side to the other and making a 7, then taking seven deep breaths. 

At some point in the last decade, McIlroy realized all of that. He realized he couldn’t fight it. It might have come via a punch in the mouth — missed cuts in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — but there was a lesson learned. If he wanted to win another U.S. Open, if he wanted to ace this specific golfing test, he had to become a different player.

“I think I really changed my mindset around [U.S. Opens] in 2019, that one in Pebble, and then since then I’ve also started to enjoy this style of golf a lot more,” he said.

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

McIlroy says Pinehurst No. 2, firm and fiery with sinuous greens, reminds him of the links golf he grew up on. And before the course snobs decry him for comparing the sand hills of North Carolina to the coastline of Northern Ireland, he’s not wrong. It’s firm and dry there with slopey greens, just as it’s firm and dry here with slopey greens. Only Pinehurst doesn’t need the wind to protect its architectural brilliance. The 21-year-old McIlroy may not have fully understood it. But the modern McIlroy reads about course architecture now more than ever before.

“Just becoming more of a student of the game again,” he says. He thinks 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 flash creativity with a 4-iron, or 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 the boring golf that he often compliments. You hit greens and you hit careful putts and sometimes the hole gets in the way. He finished with, by his accounting, “good” two-putt pars on 11, 12, 13 and 14.

“I was on this run of hitting it to 20 feet and two-putting,” he said, stopping to add to the total. “I actually had a good two-putt on 15.”

That would have enraged a younger, more impatient McIlroy. Ball-striking his pants off and getting nothing out of it. Nothing but pars. But then he rolled one in for birdie on 16, added a two-putt par on 17, and was so ready to accept another two-putt par on 18 that he began walking after his first stroke before it settled.

A few thousand people surrounded the 18th hole, but McIlroy may have been the most surprised to see his ball fall in. Another birdie, pushing him to 5 under for the day and in a tie for the lead. The kind of break winners need.

As the years tick by on this major quest — zero wins in his last 37 attempts — it’s never been more apparent that McIlroy remains a work in progress. His extremely public opinions change every few months, and he’s not afraid to admit it. He very publicly split his marriage a month ago, but now the divorce is off. He’s in the process of moving his life to England and moving the PGA Tour into the future. He’s doing a lot. Is it any wonder that he says he’s at his most focused when he’s inside the ropes?

When he enters major weeks like this one, he likes to pick a specific mindset. This week he’s trying to be “super stoic,” no matter what happens to his golf ball. Even-keeled and stoic. Playing U.S. Open golf with a U.S. Open brain.

If he gets it like he says he does, McIlroy would know he has likely already posted his best score of the week. The golf course is growing harder, physically, given the intense sunshine (and lack of rain) it will receive over the next three days. A Thursday 65 might equal a Sunday 69 by week’s end. The old McIlroy may have scoffed at that, but this one seems ready for it. 

Sean Zak Editor

Sean Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just published his first book, which follows his travels in Scotland during the most pivotal summer in the game’s history.

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