McIlroy preparing for strenuous test around Pinehurst’s infamous green complexes

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy talks to the press at Pinehurst (Jeff Haynes/USGA)

Mark McGowan

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Rory McIlroy’s first U.S. Open appearance resulted in a tie for 10th at Bethpage Black in 2009 when the Holywood prodigy had just turned 20, and two years later he got his hands on his first major title when steamrolling the field in what was arguably the most dominant U.S. Open victory since Tiger Woods’ 15-stroke win at Pebble Beach in 2000.

But genuine chances to win America’s oldest major were few and far between in the years following and three missed cuts in successive years starting in 2016 forced a reset in mindset.

“I feel like I really struggled at U.S. Open setups, 2016, ’17, ’18 in particular,” the world number three said in his pre-tournament press conference. “I sort of had a bit of a I guess come-to-Jesus moment after that, tried to really figure out why that was.

“Then my performances from 2019 and after that have been really, really good.

“Yeah, excited to be back. I really enjoyed Pinehurst last time. We were here in 2014. Just got in, so I’m looking forward to seeing the golf course this afternoon.”

McIlroy’s tie for 23rd when Pinehurst last hosted in 2014 had been his best performance in the three U.S. Opens following his breakout win, and now with five top-10 finishes in his last five U.S. Open appearances, he seems to have rediscovered the love for what has traditionally been the toughest challenge in golf.

“I would say for this golf course, it will be around the greens,” he replied when asked where his primary focus will be during his practice round reconnaissance. “From what I remember in 2014, it’s obviously generous off the tee in terms of the playing corridors that you’re asked to hit it into. If you hit it outside of those, you can get yourself into trouble, this sandy waste area.

“Like most Donald Ross courses, it’s on and around the greens where I’m going to have to sort of do the most work and sort of figure out what shots to hit around greens.

“Obviously Martin here 10 years ago used the putter very, very well. Sort of figuring out what I’m comfortable with on and around the greens. I think that will be the big key over the next sort of 36 hours.”

Bryson DeChambeau referenced the need to play ‘boring golf’ to be successful here, and McIlroy echoed those sentiments when asked how he’d become one of the leading U.S. Open contenders after struggling for many years.

“Yeah, I would say embracing the difficult conditions,” McIlroy said, “embracing the style of golf needed to contend at a U.S. Open, embracing patience. Honestly, embracing what I would have called “boring” back in the day.

“Explosiveness isn’t going to win a U.S. Open. It’s more methodically building your score over the course of four days and being okay with that.

“Honestly, it’s just more of a reframing of a mindset than anything else.”

McIlroy joins clear tournament favourite Scottie Scheffler and recent PGA Championship winner Xander Schauffele for rounds one and two, and though he struggled a little in the same company at Augusta National earlier this year, he’s relishing the opportunity of sizing his game up against the two leading players of 2024.

“I mean, if they’re playing well and I try to keep up with them, I guess it’s a good thing,” he shrugged.

“No, I mean, it’s always exciting to be a part of a marquee group like that, No. 1, 2 and 3 in the world. I remember back in the day, I think it was Torrey Pines, watching on TV, I failed to qualify for that tournament. But I remember I think watching Tiger, Phil and Adam Scott the first two days.

“It’s cool to be part of these pairings. I think at this point, Scottie, Xander and myself are all experienced enough not to get caught up in it, just to go about our business, try to shoot a couple good scores to put ourselves in position going into the weekend.”

Scheffler made it victory number five at the Memorial Tournament last week and even a player of McIlroy’s calibre can only sit back and applaud what is one of the most remarkable stretches of golf since Tiger Woods in his prime.

“The fact that the only thing that took him from winning a golf tournament was going into a jail cell for an hour,” he joked.

“I think just the relentlessness. Look, a lot of stuff went on in his life, as well. They’ve just had a new child. He’s been through some struggles in his game, particularly the putter that he’s been able to turn around, as well.

“It’s not as if he hasn’t had his challenges along the way, or circumstances have been a little bit different for him. But yeah, I mean, the word that I describe it as is “relentless.” It seems like every time he shows up, he is the guy to beat, and deservedly so.

“This run that he’s been on, I think he’s played 14 times this year or 13 times this year, only once out of the top 10. Seems like he’s always in contention.

“The most exciting thing about last week at Memorial was when he made the triple on 9. Everyone was like, oh, looks like he might let people in here, but he finds a way to steady the ship, make a few birdies when he needs to. Undoubtedly the best player in the world at the minute by a long way.

“It’s up to us to try to get to his level.”

McIlroy’s prodigious length off the tee is the facet of his game that’s spoken about most, but his deft touch around the greens is something for which he’s often not given the credit due. And an imaginative short game will be hugely important this week, something that he feels is often sadly lacking at regular PGA Tour venues.

“Yeah, because it gives you options,” he said when asked if he was a fan of difficult green complexes and large run off areas, “and it gives you, like, even going back to last week at Memorial, people hit it offline or people hit a green, you’re basically only seeing players hit one shot. There’s only one option. That turns into it being somewhat one-dimensional and honestly not very exciting.

“I think a course like this definitely demands a different skill set and also some creativity. I think that will be on display this week. I’ve already seen some videos online of people maybe trying fairway woods or having lob wedges or putters. Even if you get half lucky and get a decent lie in that wire grass, sandy area, being able to hit a recovery shot.

“I think for the viewer at home, that’s more exciting than seeing guys hack out of four-inch rough all the time. Hopefully that comes to fruition and it is an exciting golf tournament.”

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