Heaven help Congressional Country Club if he tops his 65 in this first round.
McIlroy, whose last day at a major championship was an utterly miserable 80 at the Masters, striped a 5-iron shot that covered the flag and ended up 10 feet past the hole. Then, he duplicated that swing, that flowing tempo, all afternoon, hitting 17 greens in regulation during a 6-under-par clinic that McIlroy called “a simple 65.”
Well, he would know. Last year at the British Open, he began with a 63. At Augusta in April, he started with 65. This appears to be an otherworldly habit for the supple lad who admitted that with five holes to play, the thought crossed his mind that he might shoot “the lowest round in the history of the majors” with a 62.
At most Opens, there is a brutal sequence of holes that quickly identifies which players have arrived at golf’s toughest event with their games in crisp shape and the proper blank-brained serenity, ready to contend. But those holes are seldom, if ever, the very first two you must play to begin the Open.
But that’s the hellish challenge this week, as the two most terrifying consecutive holes on the course are the treacherous 218-yard par-3 10th over water and the vicious 494-yard, par-4 11th with water down the right, a ribbon-thin fairway and danger everywhere.
McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson — this event’s glamour threesome, followed by the biggest gallery of the day by far — arrived at that 10th tee at 1:36 p.m., knowing that big names such as Ernie Els, Nick Watney and Ryo Ishikawa had already blown up with double bogeys or worse on at least one of those two holes, leaving their composure shattered and their chances damaged in an instant. For all three men, answers that may define their fate here this week came instantly.
McIlroy “prepared” for this Open by going to Haiti on a UNICEF mission. He felt it cleared his mind, gave him a sense of gratitude and, to say the least, made playing golf seem like a “test” that a fellow ought to be able to face. On his cellphone, his screen saver was a picture of the presidential palace “where the dome is just hanging off.”
After his discombobulated final-round 80 at the Masters, blowing a three-shot, 54-hole lead, McIlroy also sought out his mentor in recent years, Jack Nicklaus, at the Memorial tournament.
“We had a laugh and a bit of a joke about it,” McIlroy said. “He said he would kick my backside. . . . He didn’t [actually] threaten to beat me up. I think I can take him.”