Paolo UggettiESPN6 minute reading
LOS ANGELES — A few weeks ago, Rory McIlroy found himself doing something unexpected. He had logged onto YouTube and pulled up old highlights from major championships — his highlights — from the last time he could call himself a major champion: the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake.
“For whatever reason,” said McIlroy, who didn’t exactly shed light on whether he was searching, reminiscing or just a victim of the site’s acute algorithm. What he saw in the video was a curly-haired, 25-year-old version of himself hitting several irons and 3-woods — not drivers — off the tee en route to victory.
“It started something in my mind about, ‘You know how to do this. You know how to play smart. You don’t have to hit driver all the time.'” McIlroy said of the tape. “Yes, it’s a big weapon, it’s a big advantage, but I keep saying that I have more weapons in my arsenal now than I had then, so I might as well use them and play for them .”
Through two rounds of the 2023 US Open at Los Angeles Country Club, McIlroy’s slick play and full arsenal have been on display as he sits at 8-under, two shots behind leader Rickie Fowler heading into the weekend.
Although he has hit several drives over 370 yards so far, McIlroy doesn’t just bomb the ball down the fairway on every hole. Instead, he is first in the field in strokes gained off the tee by having total control of his golf ball, no matter which club he hits.
Perhaps no hole embodied that more on Friday than the par-5 8th, where McIlroy took his second round from satisfactory to great. After a 307-yard drive with his 3-wood, McIlroy had 218 yards to the pin, which was tucked far back on the green. His line of sight blocked by a tree, McIlroy produced a high, sweeping putt that went right into the intended spot. Twenty-one feet for eagle turned into a tap-in birdie.
The nature of a competitive round of golf can sometimes provide a grim perspective depending on what happens on the last hole. On Thursday, McIlroy got off to a fiery start, making five birdies on the front nine only to falter on the back nine and short his first and only bogey of the day on the 18th hole. An impressive round of 5 under felt shortchanged by its anticlimactic conclusion.
In his second round, McIlroy started on the back nine, carding three bogeys and just one birdie. Then he made the turn and the scoring spree began. McIlroy birdied six holes with his lone bogey on the back nine coming on the 4th and his best shot on the last — a carved 7-iron just off the 9th hole pin that nearly went for an ace. It made Friday’s 3-under round feel better than Thursday’s opening match.
“Obviously, at least to me, there’s quite a difference in scoring from the front nine to the back nine.” McIlroy said: “It feels like a golf course where you try to score on the front and then try to hang on the back.”
The concept of hanging on, for McIlroy, has proven tenuous. His best chance to break his major drought came last year at the 2022 Open Championship in St. Andrews, where he had a share of the lead going into the final lap, but was unable to hold on. It was a great year that still included three PGA Tour wins and 10 top 10 finishes, including at every major. Still, the big win kept eluding him.
“Nobody wants me to win another major more than I do,” McIlroy said. “The desire is obviously there. I’ve tried and I’ve come close over the last nine years or whatever, and I keep coming back.”
McIlroy’s self-reflection seems to be at an all-time high at this point in his career — and not just because he’s watching himself on YouTube. He mentioned on Friday how he has not been patient enough in the past and how he has at times “taken on too much”. Although he was referring to his aggressive golf game, those words could also apply to McIlroy’s role off the course over the past year.
A golf world rocked by LIV Golf and now trying to pull itself together via a shocking deal between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has turned McIlroy from its PGA Tour protagonist to a spectator. On the other hand, McIlroy has tried to withdraw from the spotlight this week as much as possible for a player of his caliber. Despite being scheduled to speak to the media on Tuesday ahead of the tournament, McIlroy opted out. And after Thursday’s 5-under round, he also chose not to speak to reporters.
After Friday’s round, McIlroy spoke in the interview room, where all the questions were about golf and his performance. The words LIV, PIF or even PGA Tour were never uttered, and the topic that was much discussed from Monday to Wednesday felt like it happened in a distant reality that McIlroy had decided not to be a part of.
Given the tumultuous nature of the last year, it makes sense that McIlroy is trying to keep things simple. Earlier this week, he walked LACC with just a putter and a pair of wedges, taking on an unfamiliar golf course with a fresh mind. And through his first two rounds with Brooks Koepka, the two have been constantly chatting and smiling, a kind of friendly symbol of how much the noise in and around the golf world can be muted once the ball is in the air.
So far, that approach seems to be working well for the four-time major winner. But whether that results in a win or another close call at the end of the weekend won’t be decided by such things. McIlroy, for his part, seems to recognize just that. In the face of a major drought that has lasted so long, the Open returns to Hoylake next month, he can only do one thing: keep trying.
“I feel like I’ve shown a lot of resilience in my career, a lot of ups and downs, and I keep coming back,” McIlroy said. “And whether that means I get rewarded or I get punched in the gut or whatever it is, I’m always going to keep coming back.”