Six Years From Last Major Title, McIlroy Seeks Solid Start
September 16, 2020 Mamaroneck, N.Y. By Dave Shedloski
2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy has put golf and career into perspective since becoming a new father. (Robert Beck/USGA)

Rory McIlroy isn’t the first professional golfer to try to balance fairways and fatherhood. He’s just the latest. And to say that it has changed him is an understatement.

Whether it changes his recent fortunes in major championships we might soon learn.

McIlroy and his wife Erica welcomed a daughter, Poppy Kennedy McIlroy, on Aug. 31. “She’s the absolute love of our lives,” McIlroy, 31, said a few days after the new little bundle of joy arrived.

Sounds like golf might now take a backseat to family for the Northern Irishman. It’s OK. Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors taking that approach to life.

“Everyone is good at home. It was tough to leave on Sunday,” McIlroy said Tuesday when he met with the media at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. “Could have spent an extra couple days there for sure.”

Winner of four major titles, including the 2011 U.S. Open, McIlroy comes to Winged Foot for the 120th U.S. Open having been shut out in the year’s four big events since he captured the 2014 PGA Championship. It’s not that he’s played poorly; he’s had two top-10 finishes each year in the majors since that PGA victory at Valhalla Golf Club near Louisville, Ky.

Oddly, it’s the U.S. Open that has given one of the game’s top players and best drivers of the golf ball the most trouble. A T-9 last year at Pebble Beach ended a run of three missed cuts in a row in the national championship.

“I think if anything, if you've looked at my major championship performances over the last few years, I've just gotten off to slow starts,” said the former world No. 1 who currently is ranked No. 4 behind Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. “I probably just put a little too much pressure on myself going into tournaments. And from there, shooting a bad score on the first day and putting yourself under even more pressure from there to just make it to the weekend, and then to try to play catch-up … I think that's been the big thing.

“When I start tournaments well, I seem to stay up there,” he added. “I started Pebble last year with a nice score and stayed up there for the most part. I didn't quite finish the week the way I wanted to. But that's been the big thing for me. If I can start and put a good solid round together on a Thursday, I'm usually right there.”

The question for this week is whether he’ll be all there or will part of his mind and heart and soul be back in Jupiter, Fla., with Erica and Poppy. And we’re not suggesting this is a bad thing. The thoughtful and introspective McIlroy usually has a pretty good grasp of things, and, sure, he’s only been a father for a matter of days, but he seems to be genuinely at ease with how he sees his life unfolding going forward.

He has always appeared to be a well-balanced individual. Now he sounds more so. Golf isn’t everything. But it’s still the thing he does as well as anyone in the world.

“I sort of referenced this a couple weeks ago,” said McIlroy, who proudly shared that he “got his hands dirty” changing a few diapers since Poppy arrived. “I think it [having a child] just puts things in perspective a little bit. Not that my career – it matters to me, and I care about it very much, but at the same time it makes the hard days a little easier to get over, right? And I'm not saying that I want to have hard days to get over, but, yeah, you're a little more relaxed.

“When I say it's not the be-all and end-all, it's a major championship, and I've grown up my whole life dreaming of winning these tournaments, and that's not going to change. But if it doesn't quite happen, I can live with that and go home and be very happy and leave what's happened at the golf course at the golf course.”

Who knows? Perhaps he’ll leave the golf course on Sunday with his second U.S. Open trophy. This year’s championship may not be ending on Father’s Day, as has been the tradition for decades, but with a win Rory McIlroy could celebrate it all the same.

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