Rory McIlroy off to another strong start at The Open
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – St. Andrews starts with one of the most famous tee shots in golf. It’s also one of the easiest. All it requires is hitting an iron into an expanse of grass that’s wider than a football field and still serves as a park one day per week. The Old Course’s opening hole, surrounded by stone buildings that have stood for centuries, gently sends golfers on their way as they start their trek out of town and toward the Eden Estuary.
The dozens of shots played after that opening salvo have a different tenor. Especially in this week’s firm conditions, they require the correct combination of touch and shape and the proper consideration of a variety of variables. Rory McIlroy said the Old Course is playing “fiddly” this week. In this era obsessed with clubhead speed, simply whaling away doesn’t provide the proper solution to St. Andrews’ complex puzzle. At times, it can only exacerbate the error. Precision outweighs power, which seems only appropriate for a course where players once competed with wooden clubs and balls stuffed with feathers.
A trip to the Old Course is a trek through time. Some ponder centuries past when they step on these greens, trying to imagine what it looked like when Old Tom Morris was working across the street. Others travel back a matter of decades, reliving triumphs by Jack Nicklaus or the dominance of Tiger Woods.
Rory McIlroy’s mind surely traveled back to 2010 when he stepped to St. Andrews’ first tee Thursday, if only for a moment. That was the last time he competed in an Open Championship at the Old Course. He was just a couple months removed from a pair of milestones, his 21st birthday and first PGA TOUR title. Already one of the top 10 players in the world ranking, he was one of the game’s rapidly-rising prospects. He started that week with a record-tying 63 before severe weather, and perhaps a bit of immaturity, led to an 80 in the second round. Finishing third that week despite such a poor round only portended his talent.
It was apparent he was on the verge of something big. And he was.
But for all he has accomplished in the dozen years since – winning four majors, two FedExCups and a PLAYERS as part of 21 PGA TOUR victories – those earlier days still represent the standard by which he is judged … and judges himself. He’s spent countless hours and read dozens of books trying to regain the freedom of those days when his swing was unencumbered and he walked the fairways with a bounce that exuded both confidence and optimism.
That McIlroy was more volatile, as evidenced by the eight-shot wins in two majors and the ill-timed 80s in two others. With age has come consistency. The responsibilities of life require it. But the victories, at least in golf’s Grand Slam events, have not.
McIlroy’s most recent major victory came in 2014. There has been progress this year, though. For the first time in his career, he’s finished in the top 10 in the year’s first three majors (and has already ensured that this is the first time since 2014 that he’ll have three major top-10s in the same year). A runner-up at the Masters, where he shot 64 on Sunday but never threatened Scottie Scheffler, was followed by top-10s at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. He held the first-round lead at Southern Hills and was just one shot off the lead at Brookline, reversing what had become a troubling trend.
The burden of expectations had bore fruit in opening rounds. His struggles on major Thursday were followed by frustrating displays of brilliance that required wondering, “What if?” In majors, his best came out when the stakes had already been lowered. It was like scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter of a blowout. McIlroy has still made his mistakes in majors this year but, like when he left St. Andrews in 2010, he seemed like a man on the verge.
“I’m closer than I’ve been in awhile,” he said after the final round of last month’s U.S. Open, where he finished four back of Matt Fitzpatrick.
McIlroy is off to another strong start at St. Andrews, shooting 66 on Thursday to sit in second place, two shots behind PGA TOUR rookie Cameron Young. McIlroy’s best attribute is his ability to overpower courses but he also displayed finesse when necessary. Playing partner Collin Morikawa called it “a really solid round of golf” that featured few errors.
“Hit it in the right spots,” Morikawa said. “When he was out of position, put it in a great spot. Overall, it was awesome.”
McIlroy made seven birdies and just a single bogey in conditions that haven’t always suited his strengths.
“’Fiddly’ hasn't really been my forte over the years,” he admitted, “but I'm hopefully going to make it my forte this week.”
Playing with more freedom, the same characteristic that was his greatest strength in the nascent years of his career, has been the solution for his struggles out of the gate in Grand Slam events, he said. He said his game feels “quiet,” without any pressing concerns.
“I've played with a little more freedom because I can, because I'm in more control of my swing and my game,” McIlroy said. “I feel sometimes when you get into the weeds with what you’re trying to do with golf swing or with coaches, they’re sort of trying to tell you how to play the game. I’m pretty good at this game. I think I know what I’m doing. I needed to take ownership of it again, and I think that’s where the freedom comes from.”
McIlroy reunited with coach Michael Bannon late last year after seeking to add distance. McIlroy’s most recent win, at the RBC Canadian Open, came without caddie Harry Diamond, who was at home after his wife gave birth. It required him to make more decisions on the course and rely less on his longtime looper.
Playing alongside Morikawa, the defending Open champion, and Xander Schauffele, who’s won his last two starts, McIlroy began Thursday with a birdie on the opening hole that drew a loud roar from the fans in the grandstands behind the green. He birdied three in a row on Nos. 5-7 before driving the 12th green to reach 5 under. He bogeyed the next hole before making birdie on the back nine’s lone par-5, the long 14th, and adding another birdie on the home hole.
His swing lacked tension or strain, which makes the game look easy, especially on rounds like Thursday’s. But was it?
“It never feels easy,” he said. “There’s just little parts of the round that it sort of shows you where you’re at with everything and mentally, physically. I came through those little tests today unscathed. I’m really proud of that.”
McIlroy could be a man on the verge, just as he was a dozen years ago.
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.