“Student of the game McIlroy” loving the Pinehurst challenge

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on 17 (Chris Keane/USGA)

Mark McGowan

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Rory McIlroy is playing in his 16th U.S. Open this week and just once in the previous 15 has he managed to card a bogey-free round. That came in the opening round of the 2011 edition at Congressional where, of course, he would go on to win by eight strokes and set a new tournament scoring record in the process.

He might not win this week, and him or anybody else setting a new U.S. Open scoring record this week at Pinehurst is a pie in the sky hope, but the man who is on the verge of going 10 years without a major title was in complete control of his game as he recorded his second ever bogey-free round at the United States’ oldest major.

Playing in the marquee threeball of the afternoon groupings alongside world numbers one and two in Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele, McIlroy was the undisputed star performer of the trio, taking care of both Pinehurst No. 2’s par-5s, and adding two more birdies on par-4s to go in hot pursuit of Patrick Cantlay who’d earlier set the clubhouse target at -5.

McIlroy reached the final hole one behind Cantlay, but his distance control on the approach was sublime and he rolled home a  20-footer to join Cantlay at -5.

“I thought I’d left it short,” he’d later admit when asked about the early walk after the putt. “That’s why I walked off it. Full disclosure. It looked good, though.”

It wasn’t quite flawless golf from the four-time major winner – he’d miss three fairways and three greens enroute to his 66 – but crucially, he never followed one bad shot with another, getting up-and-down for par on the par-3 sixth and par-4 eighth, and chipping in for birdie after playing army golf on the par-5 fifth.

With a hot putter, it could have been a round in the low 60s, but again, he didn’t miss any of the putts he was expected to get and was 100 percent on putts inside 10 feet. A 65 is an excellent start and he gets the benefit of a slightly more receptive course on day two.

McIlroy feels that he’s become more mature and appreciative of U.S. Open setups in recent years and that this is a major factor in his recent successes at the tournament, albeit coming up just shy.

“No, I didn’t,” he responded when asked if hadn’t appreciated the toughness of U.S. Opens in the early part of his career. “If you look at the U.S. Open that I did win in ’11, it was more like a PGA Championship rather than a U.S. Open, typical U.S. Open setup.

“I really don’t think I embraced U.S. Open setups probably 10 years into my U.S. Open career. Played my first one in ’09, and I think I really changed my mindset around them in 2019, that one in Pebble, and then since then I’ve — I’ve also started to enjoy this style of golf a lot more.

“It’s a lot different than the golf that we play week in, week out. I really appreciate that, and I’ve started to appreciate golf course architecture more and more as the years have went on, and I’ve started to read more about it and understand why golf course architects do certain things and design courses the way that they do.

“Just becoming more of a student of the game again, and I think because of that I’ve started to embrace golf courses like this and setups like this.”

The talk of the week was the rapid and firm greens and viciously sloping surrounds at the Donald Ross designed and Coore-Crenshaw remodelled North Carolina course, and they very much lived up to the mantle, but 15 players managed to break par on the day and a further 19 shot level-par, the traditionally favoured tournament winning score of the USGA.

“Yeah, I think so,” he answered when asked if the course setup was ideal for a U.S. Open. “I think we got lucky, as well. There was a lot of humidity early in the day, and then there was quite a lot of cloud cover the whole way through the day so it kept the golf course from getting too fiery.

“Selfishly for me, getting back out there in the morning, it’s going to be nice. Hopefully the clouds clear away and it’s a nice clear day for the guys in the afternoon.

“But it definitely wasn’t quite as fiery as I expected it to be this afternoon, which has yielded some decent scores.”

Pinehurst is a golf course that asks vastly different questions of the players than the typical course played weekly on the PGA Tour, and as somebody who was a prodigious links player in his youth, McIlroy loves the imaginative aspect of plotting his way around.

“It sort of brings me back to links golf when I was a kid a little bit,” he said. “The greens are a bit more sort of slopey and there’s a bit more movement on them. But there’s options.

“You can chip it. You can putt it. I’d love if we played more golf courses like this.”

McIlroy reference “boring golf” earlier in the week, and though there was nothing boring about watching him plot his way around Pinehurst, that’s the strategy that he thinks needs to be employed over the remaining three rounds.

“Yeah, I think just super conservative with my strategy and my game. I think with my demeanor,
just trying to be super stoic. Just trying to be as even-keeled as I possibly can be. I really feel like that’s the thing that has served me well in these U.S. Opens over the past few years,” he said.

“Just trying to be 100 percent committed to the shots and 100 percent committed to having a good attitude.”

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