PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — As a reminder that golf occasionally seems a pursuit attempted by those who have lost their minds, Rory McIlroy spoke here Wednesday. He told of his improved “hip hinge,” about how he “was just getting stuck on the way down” with his driver, how he “strengthened my 4-iron by a degree” and how the hangover Monday “wasn’t too bad.”
He explained his electrifying weekend in Canada: “I played with less technical thoughts.”
Here on a peninsula where you might spend dusks on the sand watching the damndest sunsets, McIlroy and others had gone indoors Tuesday night for one of those dinners rich in old golf stories, the kind of occasion that might imbue many with undiluted horror. This one at the 119th U.S. Open managed to boast a certain wisdom, having gathered 33 of the 36 living U.S. Open champions, ranging in age from Jordan Spieth’s 25 to one of the youngest 83s ever posted, that of Gary Player.
The chatter around that dinner, as retold by McIlroy, not only featured stirring recollections of 1968 and 1971 champion Lee Trevino and 1976 champion Jerry Pate telling of their Saturday morning four-ball triumph over Sam Torrance and Nick Faldo at the 1981 Ryder Cup at Walton Heath, England, a story either riveting or stultifying depending upon the listener. It also saw McIlroy gaining some insight from 1973 champion Johnny Miller: “And Johnny said, ‘You look at the history of major championships, that first round is so important,’ ” McIlroy said.
While it’s an imperfect world where it might have taken McIlroy 43 major championships to come across such advice, the numbers do indicate Miller had been onto something.
When McIlroy won his 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional at the scary age of 22, he opened with a 65 before going 66-68-69 while worthy of sonnets. From his other three major titles, between the 2012 PGA Championship to the 2014 PGA, there shone these three first-round scores: 67, 66, 66. Of course, he won four majors out of the 15 between June 2011 and August 2014 and zero out of the 17 he has played since, a puzzle that makes sense only in golf.
In those 17, he has opened with 69s twice and 70 or more all other times, including four 72s, a 73, a 74, a 77, a 78 and, at the U.S. Open last year at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, a great big clunk of an 80. “My first rounds at Augusta and Bethpage this year” — a 73 and a 72 — “just sort of put me a little bit behind the 8-ball,” McIlroy said. “And it’s hard to catch up. Especially, you know, major championships are played on the toughest courses, and you start to chase on those really tough courses, it’s hard to do that.”
All of that elevates McIlroy among the must-watches for the opening round, owing to recent events. He has turned 30, which in itself is horrifying. He had had a splendid calendar year even if only the geeks realize it. He has played 11 stroke-play events, finished top-10 nine times, top-five six times and No. 1 twice, including the Players. His win this past weekend at the Canadian Open wreaks the most stir here, though, as would any occasion when somebody of his glow shoots 22 under par, wins by seven, crafts a 64 on Saturday and, because that didn’t seem good enough, goes for 61 on Sunday, then gently laments not getting 59.
It came one week after his only missed cut of the year, at Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial in Ohio, and caused McIlroy to say in Canada, “That’s golf. I think that’s the thing that people don’t quite understand with golf at this level. The margins are just so fine and so small.
“That’s why I always say I never try to get too carried away when I’m playing good and I never get too carried away when I’m playing badly. Both of those instances are not that far away from each other. I think something like this [64-61] is always around the corner and something like what happened [at the Memorial], a missed cut, is always around the corner, too.”
He cheerily predicted a hangover Sunday, then by Wednesday told of having only “a couple of glasses of wine on the plane on the way here, and that was it, sort of more tired,” a somber tale of encroaching dotage. As this point in major history finds McIlroy and Spieth (among others) puzzling, with Brooks Koepka soaring, those three and their other halves sat together at the dinner Tuesday night. “We were obviously the young table,” McIlroy said.
Spieth had said Tuesday of McIlroy’s round of Sunday, “Oh, it was amazing.” Spieth also said, “I played with him the week before, and I’ve never seen anybody get so unlucky in two rounds of golf. I’m talking like hitting rocks that go out of bounds and like — he’s such an amazing driver of the golf ball. And he had an off day, and he happened to get the worst bounces I’ve ever seen, and it led him to missing the cut by a shot.”
Yet in the darkly eccentric sunshine they inhabit, the missed cut proved helpful — or seemed so. McIlroy got himself a little more “hip hinge,” he said. He tweaked an issue he described as, “I’ve always stood quite upright with the driver, and I felt like I was getting a little too over it.”
He plays a game in which his fellow Northern Ireland native, Graeme McDowell, also just had a moment in Canada. With 14 missed cuts and only three top-10s in his past 30 majors, he still managed to qualify for the upcoming Open Championship next month in his native Portrush by virtue of his eighth-place finish in Ontario.
On Tuesday, he said, “I think four or five months ago, you know, if you’d have told me you’re on the first tee with Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson this week at the U.S. Open, where my game was or where my confidence level was, I would have been very intimidated, no doubt about it.”
That would be the man who, by the way, won the last U.S. Open played here (in 2010). That would be golf.