McIlroy Finds Comfort Zone, Validation on Eve of U.S. Open
June 12, 2019 Pebble Beach, Calif. By Dave Shedloski
2011 champion Rory McIlroy comes into the 119th U.S. Open fresh off winning the Canadian Open by seven strokes. (USGA/Michael Reaves)

William Shakespeare might argue the point, and so might most professional golfers, but it turns out there is such a thing as the kindest cut.

Just ask Rory McIlroy, who two weeks ago missed his first cut of a consistently solid season at the Memorial Tournament, Jack Nicklaus' event in Dublin, Ohio. McIlroy was less unhappy with his game than he let on, telling one of the valets at Muirfield Village Golf Club who was trying to carefully put his clubs in the back of the courtesy car as he departed the grounds, “Don’t worry breaking them after the way I've been hitting them.”

But he knew deep down all he needed was a slight adjustment here, a nip and tuck there. The missed cut gave him time to get dialed in.

The result was a resounding seven-stroke victory on Sunday at the RBC Canadian Open, where he ripped up Hamilton Golf & Country Club with a 22-under-par 258, a tournament record. On the weekend he shot 64-61, 15 under par. The 61 equaled his career low on the PGA Tour.

“I felt really comfortable with everything for the last few weeks. Some of it’s sort of minor swing changes that I’ve been trying to make. Not changes, but just little tweaks,” McIlroy explained on Wednesday. “I felt like they started to bed in over the weekend at Memorial that I missed the cut. And I even said before the tournament last week I felt like that missed cut at the Memorial was a blessing in disguise. It let me work on my game a little more.

“Those two rounds [at Memorial] highlighted a couple of things that I still needed to work on. And I think just from seeing good shots and making good swings on the range, to then seeing good shots, making good swings on the golf course, then you can start to play with a little bit of freedom and fire.”

The 2011 U.S. Open winner, McIlroy said he hadn’t felt that good about his game since the 2016 FedExCup Playoffs. He won consecutive events that year and that spurt allowed him to walk off with the season-long title.

With two victories this year, increasing to 16 his number of PGA Tour titles, and 10 top-10 finishes in 13 starts, the Ulsterman already was looked upon as one of the favorites for the 119th U.S. Open that starts Thursday at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Now he’s playing with freedom. And fire.

And confidence.

“Obviously, it's a nice little confidence boost coming into this tournament,” said McIlroy, whose won the last of his four major titles at the 2014 PGA Championship. “I feel like my game has been in pretty good shape all year, and it was nice to validate the good work that I've been putting in with another win.

“And I feel like the golf that I played last week is what I’m capable of and the golf that I’ll obviously try to produce more often. You’re obviously not going to go out and shoot those scores every weekend, but it’s nice when it happens. It was a nice way to come into this tournament.”

In Canada he also used the word freedom in describing the current state of his golf game.

“Yeah, I think when you're playing up there in the final rounds of tournaments and you're up around the lead, it's easier said than done to play with freedom. And I think that how I played last weekend up around the lead. I know what I'm capable of, and it's just about trying to get that out of myself just a little more often. But it's obviously very hard to play with that amount of freedom if you're not confident in your golf swing and you're not confident in what you're doing with your game.”

McIlroy tends to win in spurts. That 2014 PGA Championship victory came in the midst of three wins in a row that included The Open Championship, with the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title sandwiched in between.

But before he won The Players Championship in March, McIlroy had won only once since 2016, at last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. The slight pause in success flummoxed the 30-year-old from Northern Ireland, who decided that in 2019 he would play mostly in the U.S. to have a better chance to win majors and gain more consistency.

He definitely has been more consistent, and now he seems to be warming up for another big win.

But since his record-setting victory at Congressional Country Club, where he shot 16-under 268 and won by eight strokes, McIlroy has missed more cuts (four) than he has made (three) in the U.S. Open. He hasn’t played on the weekend in the championship since 2015 at Chambers Bay.

In each of the last three years he has gotten off to a terrible start with rounds of 77, 78 and 80.

“I had a chat with Johnny Miller [at Tuesday’s Reunion of Champions], and Johnny said, ‘You look at the history of major championships, that first round is so important.’ I said, ‘I know.’ My first rounds at Augusta and Bethpage this year just sort of put me a little bit behind the eight ball,” said McIlroy, who shot over par to start the Masters and PGA, respectively. “And it's hard to catch up. Especially, you know, major championships are played on the toughest courses, and you start to chase on those really tough courses, it's hard to do that.

“I think getting back to winning, the majors that I’ve won, I’ve started every single one of them really well, runs in sort of the mid-60s, and I think that’s sort of what’s held me back a little bit. If I can take that freedom that I played with on Saturday and Sunday last week and put that into tomorrow and play with that sort of freedom and get off to a good start, I’ll be right – hopefully right in the tournament from the get-go and stay there.”

If he starts his 11th U.S. Open the way he finished in Canada, he’ll, pardon the expression, cut to the chase.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usopen.com and usga.org.