Olympics help Rory McIlroy embrace care-free approach
July 30, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Rory McIlroy is in contention after shooting 69-66 at Kasumigaseki Country Club. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
KAWAGOE, Japan – Half a world from home, in a tournament he was unsure he wanted to participate in, Rory McIlroy may have found what he was seeking.
His Olympic experience has exceeded his expectations, as has his performance. McIlroy is in contention after shooting 69-66 at Kasumigaseki Country Club. He’s just four back of leader Xander Schauffele, who shot 63 on Friday.
A new putter has reminded McIlroy of his younger self. A long, wide-open venue is reminiscent of some of the courses where he’s had the most success. And being surrounded by the world’s greatest athletes has been an encouragement.
Playing with a childhood friend could only add to his enjoyment. His Irish teammate, Shane Lowry, also is 7 under par. The two helped Ireland win the 2007 European Team Championship as amateurs, back when McIlroy still had long, curly hair and Lowry wore glasses.
Now they’re competing for Olympic medals and possibly will do so side-by-side. Tee times won’t be determined until the rain-delayed third round is completed Saturday morning, but with threesomes being used, the odds are in the Irishmen’s favor.
A frustrated McIlroy put down the clubs for several days between The Open, where he finished T46, and the Olympics. He needed a break. He’d been playing too tentative. Too tight. He was too concerned with consequences.
“When you do that, you're not as effortless, you're not as free, you're not as athletic and instinctive,” he said. Those were the traits that the younger McIlroy – the one who made blowout wins in majors look easy – was known for.
It becomes more difficult to exhibit those characteristics with the accumulation of age, however. This has been a season of transition for McIlroy, who hired a new swing coach, Pete Cowen, for the first time in his pro career because of the inconsistency that resulted from his quest for even more distance.
McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship in May to end an 18-month winless drought and finished T7 in last month’s U.S. Open, but his previous start was a discouraging T46 at The Open, where he said his mental game let him down.
“I think all the tools are there physically,” he said.
He showed that Friday, with a birdie-birdie-eagle stretch on Nos. 6-8 that displayed the type of shots that separate McIlroy from the field when he is at his best. He drove the par-4 sixth with a 3-wood, knocked his tee shot on the 223-yard seventh hole to 3 feet and hit his 258-yard second shot on the par-5 eighth to 15 feet. He also reached the 625-yard 14th hole in two shots for another birdie.
McIlroy’s long game has long been a spectacle and Kasumigaseki has helped bring out his best. There are no penalty areas or out of bounds off the tee, which allows McIlroy to swing freely. It reminds him of courses where he’s had success, such as Quail Hollow, where he’s won three times and twice set the course record, and Firestone.
The Irish pair actually went back-to-back at Firestone, with McIlroy winning the World Golf Championship there in 2014 and Lowry following up a year later. The lack of trouble off the tee at Kasumigaseki has been a benefit to Lowry, as well, but for the opposite reason. He said he’s struggled off the tee, but still shot 65 on Friday.
“It’s not looking at white stakes or red hazards,” McIlroy said. “There's trees and there's whatever, but you can figure out a way to get around them and chip out and I like that.”
He also has excelled with the shortest club in his bag after switching to a new Scotty Cameron. The putter, which is similar to the one he used to win his first two majors, has made McIlroy more focused on his target instead of his stroke. When asked if it helped him play like his younger self, he twice said, “Yeah, it does.”
McIlroy’s lack of enthusiasm for the Games before arriving in Tokyo also unexpectedly worked in his favor. “When you sort of approach tournaments like that, it’s funny how you end up playing some of your best golf,” he said Friday.
That indifference has quickly faded away, however. He said Friday he was excited to watch the dressage, calling it “mesmerizing.” He thought these may be the only Olympics he ever played. Now he’s already looking forward to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“Being a part of something that's completely different and bigger than me and even our sport in general,” McIlroy said, “that's a pretty cool thing.”
Winning a gold medal would make it even cooler.