Rory McIlroy channels anger in right direction to fire his way into US Open contention
Star’s shows of anger ‘remind yourself sometimes how much it means to you’
He thrashed the sand in a bunker with the vicious air of a man with a grudge against Saudi Arabia, helicoptered an iron down a fairway and pulled his hat over his eyes after a closing bogey sullied a near-perfect Houdini act.
In short, Rory McIlroy wore his heart on his sleeve as he carded a three-under-par 67 to share the early clubhouse lead in the US Open at the Country Club of Brookline.
He struggled at times with his swing but made four key par saves to go with his four birdies before he short-sided himself at his final hole.
There are those who want him to be the conscience of the game as he leads the chorus of opposition to the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series.
But as McIlroy explained afterwards, as he bids for his second US Open title, he didn’t ask to be the moral compass of the professional game. Asked if he was trying to make a statement with his clubs, he said: “Not really. It’s been eight years since I won a Major, and I just want to get my hands on one again.”
Dressed in taupe pants and a white shirt festooned with flowers – his tribute to Bloomsday perhaps and Joyce’s insistence we “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past” – McIlroy played a marvellous round.
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He shared the early lead with Sweden’s David Lingmerth, American Joel Dahmen and English qualifier Callum Tarren (31), the world No 445 who has missed 10 of 17 cuts on the PGA Tour this year.
“You’d take 67 around this golf course any day,” said McIlroy, who faded to eighth after an opening 65 in last month’s US PGA. “Even though I’m standing up here slightly frustrated that I bogeyed the last, it’s a great start to the tournament.
“I felt like I did most things well today. I certainly putted well, and I hit the ball in the right spots, and I hit a lot of greens, gave myself plenty of chances. Just basically did everything that you need to do at a US Open.”
That the round might have been a 73 says it all about his putting and the difficulty of this classic lay-out.
After opening with regulation pars, having started on the back nine, he escaped heavy punishment with stroke of genius at the 13th, where he pushed his three-wood well right but avoided the deep fescue and proceeded to hit a low, cut 193-yard approach that might have found water had he clipped the tree blocking him out.
Instead, he came up just off the green and while his 30-footer skated seven feet past, he made the first of four great par saves.
He was in more rough at the downhill 15th and came up 40 yards short in the right rough with his second before making an important 12-footer for par before finally dipping into the red at the 201-yard 16th, where he holed from 18 feet.
He might have birdied the 17th after a perfect tee shot left him just a 60-yard pitch to a pin cut on the tiny back tier of the sloping green. But while he hit a low, checking shot to little more than seven feet, he missed the breaking left-to-right putt.
He made amends by holing an 18-footer at the 18th to turn in 33, then made a slick 16-footer for par at the par-three second, where he blocked his tee-shot into deep rough.
He rightly celebrated with a few fist pumps, but he was more relieved after his par-save at the 315-yard fifth, where he had a long wait on the tee and eventually carved his drive into deep rough just above a bunker.
Forced to stand in the sand with the ball well above him, his recovery squirted 45 degrees left into the bunker just in front of him and angrily thrashed the sand twice with his club before splashing out to 12 feet and making the downhill putt for another invaluable par.
“Again, you’re going to encounter things at a US Open, whether they be lies or stuff like that, that you just don’t really encounter any other week,” he said. “So I was sort of cursing the USGA whenever I was going up to the ball . . . You just have to accept it. I gave the sand a couple of whacks because I’d already messed it up, so it wasn’t like it was much more work for Harry, and then I just reset and played a decent bunker shot, and then it was really nice to hole that putt.”
He would knock in a 30-footer for a birdie at the seventh and a 10-footer at the par-five eighth before he short-sided himself at the ninth and flung his club down the fairway in disgust before missing a 13-footer for par. “I was sort of in two minds about what shot to hit on the second on nine and missed the green where you just can’t miss it. I didn’t do that all day.”
As for the outbursts, he said: “[They’re] almost to remind yourself sometimes how much it means to you, as well. Again, some of these reactions that maybe you saw out there today, whether it be hitting the sand on five or the club throw on nine, you just have to be so precise and so exact at this golf tournament maybe compared to some others that any little thing that doesn’t quite go right, you’re sort of putting yourself behind the eight-ball.
“The margins are just so fine, and I think you can see that out there with some of the reactions.”
Keeping it going now will be the challenge, especially as the course dries out and pars become even more valuable. “I’m going into tomorrow with the mindset of let’s keep it going, rather than where is the cut line or whatever. If you don’t get off to a great start, those thoughts start to creep in – okay, what do I need to just be here for the weekend. It’s certainly a different mindset when you get off to a good start, and yeah, I’ve just got to keep it going.”
He certainly got the best of the weather with the west wind only getting up towards the end of the round. The leading quartet had a one-shot lead over a mixed bunch – left-hander Brian Harman, Australian Matthew NeSmith, former rookie of the year Arron Wise and American qualifier Hayden Buckley.
As for the rest, defending champion Jon Rahm battled his game and his temper to shoot a 69 that left him tied with the likes of Collin Morikawa, Max Homa, Will Zalatoris and Adam Scott, just two shots behind.
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