Easier Said Than Done
Rory McIlroy can make the game look simple. After a first-round 66 at St. Andrews, now comes the hard part
By Alan Shipnuck
ST. ANDREWS — Rory McIlroy, you just shot the easiest 66 any of us have ever seen. How did it feel?
“It never feels easy,” McIlroy said on Thursday following the first round of the 150th Open Championship, where he is in second place, two strokes behind Cameron Young. “There’s pivotal moments in the round, little things. I hit a good putt for birdie on the 8th hole, hit it three feet by. I wasn’t really that comfortable with the second putt, but I stepped up there, committed to it and holed a nice putt. It’s just like these little parts of the rounds that test you. And I feel like every time the round did that to me today, I was able to come through it. The two-putt from 60 feet for bogey on 13, and the up-and-down for birdie on 14 and the two-putt [from well short of the green] on 17. There’s just little parts of the round that sort of show you where you are mentally, physically, and I came through all those little tests today unscathed, and I’m really proud of that. So it might have looked easy, but there’s certain parts of the round that are challenging.”
Listening to McIlroy talk about golf, and its mental challenges, is almost as much fun as watching him play golf. Whereas Tiger Woods’s goal at press conferences has always been to say as little as possible of substance while filling the minimum required time, McIlroy likes to let us in. It is part of his generous nature. A well-guarded fortress of the inner self helped Woods dominate, because he showed no weakness and made himself an enigma to his peers. But it also made him a remote figure who was more revered than beloved. McIlroy has become the game’s most cherished ambassador, universally appreciated for his candor, insight and humanity.
But has it come at a cost? Is wearing his heart on his sleeve, and being so brutally honest about his shortcomings, a sign of frailty? McIlroy’s eight-year drought in the major championships has owed much to his vexing tendency to shoot a million in the first round. It was a kind of stage fright for such a freewheeling player. But McIlroy’s 66 at the Open is the third straight major at which he has gotten off to a hot start. He spent most of 2021 in a dalliance with a new swing coach, Pete Cowen, in a foolhardy attempt to chase more distance, spurred by, of all people, Bryson DeChambeau. At year’s end, McIlroy returned to his boyhood coach Michael Bannon. “I think 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 of his improved play to open majors. “And I think it sort of goes hand in hand. I have confidence, and I can go out and play free and not be maybe as timid and tight starting off.”
Timid. Tight. These are not the usual word choices of a superstar jock. But McIlroy is a deep feeler. Asked his state of mind during the first round — which was all more freighted for him because he missed the last Open at St. Andrews, in 2015, after injuring himself in a game of footie — McIlroy went with “very settled.” He added, “Everything feels just sort of nice and quiet, which is a nice way to be. And yeah, thinking well.”
For a player with as much firepower as McIlroy, the Old Course is an endless test of will, a seductress forever trying to lead him astray. The key to his round was restraint. Collin Morikawa played alongside McIlory during the first round at St. Andrews and also on Sunday at the Masters, when Rory tried to steal a green jacket with a closing 64. “That was like flawless golf, right?” Morikawa said of the Augusta charge. “Today was a really solid round of golf. Didn’t make any errors, hit it in the right spots. When he was out of position, he put it in a great spot.”
McIlroy was most proud of how he played the Road Hole. After nuking a drive over the hotel at the par-4 17th, he was left with only 85 yards in, a perfect number for his lob wedge. But the lie was exceptionally tight and McIlroy was worried if he caught it even a little thin he might send his ball “into the middle of town.” So he chipped a gap wedge. It came up short but that was the correct miss, and he got up-and-down for a stress-free par on a dangerous hole. He used the word “accepting” to describe the scenario.
At this year’s PGA Championship, McIlroy followed his 65 with a 71; at the U.S. Open a 69 came after his opening 67. These were solid enough rounds but also missed opportunities to take the tournament by the throat. Having gotten off the Thursday schneid, McIlroy must conquer the Friday funnies. “I need to go out tomorrow and back up what I just did today,” he said, with just a hint of braggadocio that was undeniably pleasing. “I think that’s important to do.”
Given this rancorous time in professional golf, with its warring tours and players lobbing press conference grenades at each other, there has been much talk about an Old Course Open renewing the spirit of the game. McIlroy grew up on an island just across the Irish Sea from Scotland, and in his eloquent defenses of the game’s traditional values he has emerged as golf’s conscience. He would be a wildly popular winner here, and even on Thursday the crowd was at full throat, trying to will McIlroy to a defining victory. Morikawa is the defending champion, and the third member of the group, Xander Schaufelle, is the hottest player on the planet but they barely register. Said Morikawa, “You hear your specks of ‘Collin’ and specks of ‘Xander,’ but it’s hard to beat Rory.”
No disrespect to Cameron Young, but beating Rory is now the mandate of any player who wants to win this tournament.