US Open: Rory McIlroy keen to freewheel from the off at Torrey Pines

‘In terms of where everything’s heading, it’s definitely in the right direction’

Rory McIlroy is interviewed at Torrey Pines in San Diego ahead of the US Open. Photograph: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy is interviewed at Torrey Pines in San Diego ahead of the US Open. Photograph: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

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Rory McIlroy’s all-white hooded outfit befitted a man setting out on a mission. Rather than venturing into space, though, the Northern Irishman’s task – to end a seven-year drought in the Majors, dating back to lifting the Wanamaker Trophy as PGA champion in 2014 – will involve negotiating the set-up on the South Course at Torrey Pines where the 121st edition of the US Open Championship plays out over the coming days.

The world number 11 explained away his get-up for the pre-championship media conference as putting on whatever came to hand as he finished a workout in the fitness trailer. Rather more thought, you feel, has gone into how to tackle the examination in southern California – a genuine drought has resulted in firm, poa annua greens but patchy rough – where sub-plots abound.

For sure, McIlroy is just one of those in the spotlight, with Phil Mickelson – again – going in search of the only missing link in his bid for the career Grand Slam; there’s Bryson v Brooks of course, and there’s Jon Rahm’s return after contracting Covid. Plus more, the sort of championship which is almost tempting fate in delivering so many potential twists and turns in figuring out how and who can decipher the code.

In McIlroy’s case, it is about not tripping himself up in the first round (which has become an all too regular occurrence in the Majors of late) and also about ensuring that he brings his A-Game to the table. It would seem McIlroy as much as anyone is unsure what is required.

As McIlroy observed of a conversation he had with his caddie Harry Diamond following the recent Memorial tournament: “I felt like I played better at Memorial than I did at Quail Hollow. 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.”

The signs in the practice rounds have been encouraging for McIlroy, with the swing changes – under Pete Cowen – seemingly bedding in after the two had intensive sessions together in Florida last week.

England’s Justin Rose hits from the sixth fairway during a practice round for the US Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA
England’s Justin Rose hits from the sixth fairway during a practice round for the US Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

“Yeah, like the technical and mechanical parts of it are all there. It’s just a matter of going out in a US Open setting and trusting what I’ve been doing in practice, and then it gets more into the mental side of things and being really clear and really committed in what you’re trying to do and being as free on the course as I am on the range. That’s the big challenge. But in terms of where everything’s heading, it’s definitely in the right direction,” claimed McIlroy.

Yet, there can be no escaping the simple fact that McIlroy – since claiming that fourth career Major in 2014 – has struggled to deliver.

What can he do to change things? “I guess by being different,” he offered, “by not putting myself under pressure that I have to care, I guess is the right way to do it. If I went out and played this golf course any other week, [I’d] play free, and it’s just the same thing. You just have to be able to swing with that freedom, 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’s able to play well the rest of the tournament because that does free you up. It’s like, okay, 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 Thursday and not the Friday.”

Easier said than done, of course, particularly when the baggage of those poor first rounds has gotten added weight over the years: the scar tissue is relatively recent too, in most cases. An opening 76 at this year’s Masters. Outcome: missed cut. An opening 79 in the Open at Royal Portrush. Outcome: missed cut. An opening 80 at the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Outcome: missed cut.

But at least McIlroy has identified those stumbling starts as an issue and found, he would hope, the solution.

And especially so given the belief that the course is playable and even the rough is, as McIlroy put it “playable”.

“You can hit it in the rough and at least have a chance to get it up around the green and use your short game to scramble and save par. It’s not as penal as some other US Opens. But I think the set-up’s good, it’s really fair. I’ve heard nothing but positive praise from a lot of the players.”

He added: “I think if you see your ball sailing into the rough, you hope you’re just going to get lucky. It can settle into the kikuyu, that’s sticky and juicy, or there’s the patches of poa [annua] out there that are more of the yellowish, brownish colour, and you hope your ball is going to land in one of those patches and you can get it out onto the green. There’s no substitute for hitting the ball off the fairway here. It’s a proper US Open test.”

Tee-times
First hole Thursday/10th hole Friday (All times Irish)

2.45pm/8.30pm: Sahith Theegala, Edoardo Molinari, Greyson Sigg
2.56pm/8.41pm: Chris Baker, JJ Spaun, Fabian Gomez
3.07pm/8.52pm: Patrick Rodgers, Robby Shelton, (a) Pierceson Coody
3.18pm/9.03pm: Russell Henley, Mackenzie Hughes, Harris English
3.29pm/9.14pm: Francesco Molinari, Henrik Stenson, Shane Lowry
3.40pm/9.25pm:
Matt Fitzpatrick, Tyrrell Hatton, Viktor Hovland
3.51pm/9.36pm: Martin Kaymer, Webb Simpson, Gary Woodland
4.02pm/9.47pm: Tony Finau, Abraham Ancer, Daniel Berger
4.13am/9.58pm: Si Woo Kim, Kevin Na, Bernd Wiesberger
4.24pm/10.09pm: Jimmy Walker, Ian Poulter, Ryan Palmer
4.35pm/10.20pm: JT Poston, Adam Hadwin, (a) Joe Long
4.46pm/10.31pm: Luis Fernando Barco, Dylan Meyer, (a) Matthew Sharpstene
4.57pm/10.42pm: Mario Carmona, Wilson Furr, Davis Shore
8.30pm/2.45pm: Zach Zaback, Steve Allan, Eric Cole,
8.41pm/2.56pm: Hayden Buckley, Taylor Montgomery, Jordan Smith
8.52pm/3.07pm: Chez Reavie, Richard Bland, Troy Merritt
9.03pm/3.18pm: Robert MacIntyre, Victor Perez, Matt Wallace
9.14pm/3.29pm: Tyler Strafaci, Hideki Matsuyama, Bryson DeChambeau
9.25pm/3.40pm: Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Bubba Watson
9.36pm/3.51pm: Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose
9.47pm/4.02pm: Matt Jones, Brendan Steele, Cameron Smith
9.58pm/4.13pm: Carlos Ortiz, Zach Johnson, Lanto Griffin
10.09pm/4.24pm: Sam Burns, Chan Kim, Thomas Detry
10.20pm/4.35pm: (a) Ollie Osborne, Peter Malnati, Brian Stuard
10.31pm/4.46pm: John Huh, Johannes Veerman, Zack Sucher
10.42pm/4.57pm: Rick Lamb, Michael Johnson, Carson Schaake

10th hole Thursday/First hole Friday

2.45pm/8.30pm: Andy Pope, Brad Kennedy, Thomas Aiken
2.56pm/8.41pm: Yosuke Asaji, Marcus Armitage, Jhonattan Vegas
3.07pm/8.52pm: Cameron Young, Wilco Nienaber, Guido Migliozzi
3.18pm/9.03pm: Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood, Matthew Wolff
3.29pm/9.14pm: Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka
3.40pm/9.25pm: Kevin Kisner, Billy Horschel, Matt Kuchar
3.51pm/9.36pm: Max Homa, Xander Schauffele, Phil Mickelson
4.02pm/9.47pm: Jason Kokrak, Cameron Champ, Corey Conners
4.13pm/9.58pm: Paul Barjon, Sam Ryder, Ryo Ishikawa
4.24pm/10.09pm: Dylan Frittelli, Martin Laird, K.H. Lee
4.35pm/10.20pm: Rafa Cabrera Bello, Adrian Meronk, Sung Kang
4.46pm/10.31pm: Akshay Bhatia, (a) Andrew Kozan, Alvaro Ortiz
4.57pm/10.42pm: James Hervol, Hayden Springer, Roy Cootes
8.30pm/2.45pm: David Coupland, Taylor Pendrith, Wade Ormsby
8.41pm/2.56pm: Tom Hoge, Bo Hoag, (a) Joe Highsmith
8.52pm/3.07pm: Erik van Rooyen, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Charl Schwartzel
9.03pm/3.18pm: Garrick Higgo, (a) Cole Hammer, Joaquin Niemann
9.14pm/3.29pm: Lee Westwood, Stewart Cink, Paul Casey
9.25pm/3.40pm: Will Zalatoris, Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth
9.36pm/3.51pm: Marc Leishman, Jon Rahm, Patrick Reed,
9.47pm/4.02pm: Patrick Cantlay, Louis Oosthuizen, Sungjae Im
9.58pm/4.13pm: Kevin Streelman, Branden Grace, Charley Hoffman
10.09pm/4.24pm: Sebastian Munoz, Rikuya Hoshino, Brendon Todd
10.20pm/4.35pm: Wyndham Clark, (a) Matthias Schmid, Matthew Southgate
10.31pm/4.46pm: (a) Spencer Ralston, Dylan Wu, Justin Suh
10.42pm/4.57pm: Luis Gagne, Kyle Westmoreland, Christopher Crawford
 

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