Something tells me that McIlroy is the man to beat in L.A.

Mark McGowan
Rory McIlroy strides out ahead of Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama in round one (Image; James Gilbert/USGA)

Rory McIlroy strides out ahead of Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama in round one (Image; James Gilbert/USGA)

For those of you with proper nine-to-fives, watching the US Open last night was probably out of the question. Even those of us who work in the industry struggled with the concept of a 3am finish and bowed out early, but being childless and relatively carefree, I stuck it out.

I hadn’t exactly planned to, and if Rory McIlroy was two-over through nine I’d have probably pulled the plug as well, but starting the way he did virtually guaranteed that I was in for the long haul.

Sure, he’s had better rounds from a scoring perspective. Realistically, five-under is probably the worst he could’ve shot given the way he struck the ball which might sound a little odd given that he ranked fifth in strokes gained putting.


The only metric in which McIlroy was negative to the field were in strokes gained around the green. Missing just two greens of the 18 greens in regulation – the 17th and 18th as it happens – the sixth was the only other hole in which he’d have to scramble, and his recovery shot from a thick lie in the barranca short of the green was sublime and almost led to his fourth birdie in the opening six.

The 17th was effectively a green in reg as he’d lag putt to tap in distance from just short of the green, and 18, well, the less said about 18 the better. But say it I will. It was his worst iron shot of the day, missing in the worst possible place and advancing the ball just a few inches before holing a crucial 11-footer for bogey after his second chip came out a little hot.

Walking off, he was clearly fuming. Incessantly rubbing his neck and face in frustration before declining to talk to the media yet again. Whether he’s decided to let his clubs, and only his clubs, do the talking this week is a possibility given that he’d withdrawn his name from the press conference schedule and was going to ghost the journalists regardless will have to wait at least another day to be revealed, but the high frustration levels he’s feeling are probably more to do with the fact that he’d largely had the ball on a string and still trails by three.

And if that’s the case, then that’s not a bad thing. Five-under through eight, and with the course playing as friendly as it possibly could’ve, joining Xander Schauffele and Rickie Fowler in the record books with a 62 was in sight, and sticking up two fingers as he cruised in with a 61 or lower was a distinct possibility.

I think Rory was feeling it. His driving was as good as it’s been all year, the only tee-shot that sticks out as being costly was on the 628-yard par-5 14th where he yelled ‘fore-left’ and was forced to layup well back and settle for par. There’s not many players who can stand on the tee box of a hole that length and expect to get on in two, but that’s the advantage he has over the field. Otherwise, he largely put himself in the right spots off the tee, and gave himself plenty of birdie opportunities.

His putting from distance was extremely good but he got very little change from it. Eagle-putts on one and eight had a sniff of going in, birdie putts on several holes slid agonisingly by, others came up just short on the perfect line. On another day, this could’ve been 61 or 62, easily. Instead, it was 65.

Ordinarily, that would be cause for concern given Rory’s recent major penchant for throwing in a bad round and the extra few shots cushion would always come in extremely handy, but for some reason I’ve got this feeling that this week will be different. He’s probably not going to shoot as low as 65 again this week, but he’d probably not going to have to.

As US Open setups go, this was as benign as the USGA could have possibly made it. Greens watered on Wednesday evening, friendly pins and several holes playing from advanced tees made low rounds possible and when you present the best players in the world with those sort of opportunities, you can be guaranteed that many will make hay while the sun shines.

Speaking of sunshine, there was very little yesterday but a little more promised in the afternoon today which will make the greens less receptive in the afternoon and the accompanying wind adding to the difficulties.  With the course likely setup to reign in the scoring a little, the early starters – of which McIlroy will be one – should enjoy more of an advantage on the afternoon wave than the other half of the field enjoyed yesterday.

McIlroy is three back, tied for fifth, and only Dustin Johnson ahead of him has proven that he has what it takes to win a major, though 14 of the last 20 US Opens have been won by players capturing their first of the game’s big four. Scottie Scheffler is lurking ominously despite an unspectacular round that had the normally stoic Texan visibly venting his frustrations at times, Jon Rahm shot -1 despite driving it all over the place and Brooks Koepka somehow kept himself in it despite hitting his irons like a mid-handicapper.

Still, I’ve not been as bullish about McIlroy’s chances after day one of a major since, well, since the Open last year.

Will it be different this time? At the risk of having this blow up in my face amidst a chorus of ‘I told you so’ and ‘he doesn’t have the bottle,’ something tells me it will.


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