Head Games: McIlroy Seeks to Free His Mind
June 16, 2021 San Diego, Calif. By Dave Shedloski
Rory McIlroy believes freeing up his mind will bring back the younger version of himself, the guy who dominated in winning the 2011 U.S. Open. (Jeff Haynes/USGA)

Rory McIlroy is trying to rediscover a younger version of himself as he prepares for his 13th U.S. Open. Not that he’d be the first player to express this desire. He's getting into the back of a long, long line.

But in McIlroy’s case, at age 32, he’s not exactly so long in the tooth that he has experienced any erosion of his skills. In fact, in golf terms, he’s just hitting his prime.

But lyrics from Pink Floyd come to mind when assessing McIlroy and his game on the eve of the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines: “There’s someone in my head, and it’s not me.”

There seems to be a mental hurdle that the introspective Northern Irishman can’t seem to clear in the first round of major championships, one that didn’t deter him earlier in his career, especially a decade ago when he captured the U.S. Open at Congressional with a dominating eight-stroke victory and record-setting 16-under-par 268 total.

That’s the guy McIlroy wants to be, the guy who, he said Wednesday, had “probably just a little less going on in my head [in 2011], I guess, is the best way to describe it. Probably a little less cynical, too.”

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McIlroy owns four major titles, the last coming in the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. Since then, he’s finished in the top 10 twice each year in majors for the last six years and comes to the South Course at Torrey Pines off consecutive top 10s in the U.S. Open. In September at Winged Foot he ended up T-8 after he opened with a solid 3-under 67, while his opening 68 at Pebble Beach in 2019 led to a tie for ninth.

Those performances happened to be outliers, however. In the Masters in November, he started with a 75 – only to rally brilliantly to end up tied for fifth. In April, again at Augusta National, he opened with a 76 and missed the cut, and last month at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island he was derailed by another slow start, ending up T-49 after a first-round 75.

Since the start of 2015, McIlroy is a combined 35 over par in the opening round of majors. That’s a major problem, and he knows it because he remembers how he felt at Congressional, where, by the way, he started with a 65 – the only other sub-par opening round in his U.S. Open career.

“First time I laid my eyes on Congressional, I thought, ‘You know, I could see myself shooting scores out here.’ It's the same as here [at Torrey Pines]. You hit fairways, you hit greens, and you can shoot good scores. It's just a matter of getting into a little more of a positive mindset going into the tournament.”

Ranked 11th in the world, McIlroy added that he has simply put too much pressure on himself, which has led to playing too tentatively. His plan to combat that is rather ingenious – if he can pull it off.

The mind can play tricks on a player. He has to trick it back. There's a reason that the late Jim Flick, a noted swing instructor, once said that “golf is 90 percent mental and the other 10 percent ... is mental.”

“I guess by being indifferent. Not by not caring, but by not putting myself under pressure that I have to care, I guess is the right way to do it,” he said of his approach when the gun goes off Thursday at 1:36 p.m. PDT. “If I went out and played this golf course any other week, you play free, and it's just the same thing. As I said, you just have to be able to swing with that freedom, and that's sort of what I'm trying to get back to.

“There's no surprise that if I do have, say, not a great first day that I'm able to play well the rest of the tournament because that does free you up. It's like, ‘OK, well, the bad one's out of the way, and now I can just sort of freewheel.’ It's just a matter of freewheeling from the Thursday and not the Friday.”

Golf plays tricks on its practitioners in other ways.

McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship last month for his 19th PGA Tour title. He did it without his best stuff while still in transition with swing adjustments under instructor Pete Cowen. Since then, he’s seen significant progress and was buoyed by his performance at the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club, a tough layout with fast greens and nasty rough that was a proper warmup for this week. And yet he didn’t come close to winning.

“I felt like I played better at Memorial than I did at Quail Hollow,” he said. “I finished 18th at Memorial and I won Quail Hollow. It's golf at the end of the day and sometimes it's just unpredictable. I'm feeling good about where my game is. As I said at the very start, it's about going out there and playing as free as I can and having that mentality that I had as a 22-year-old and just trying to get into that mindset.”

There’s someone in his head. And it is him. Sooner or later, he’ll find that guy, that champion.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.