- After back-to-back 69s at Carnoustie, Rory McIlroy is in great position to chase his fifth major. And remember: he's still just 29 years old.
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy doffed his cap as he crossed a bridge over the Barry Burn on the 18th hole, and the surprise was that water did not pour out of it. It was a cold, wet morning in what the street signs declare to be a FAMOUS GOLF TOWN. Carnoustie has been that for a century or so, and it was a not-necessarily-famous golf town for the four centuries before that. Walk around here for a while, and you feel like part of golf history. McIlroy actually might be.
McIlroy is four under par after 36 holes, and not just in British Open contention but perhaps the favorite heading into the weekend. This is where we expect him to be. McIlroy has not won a major championship since 2014, and yet he is seeking his fifth one. At age 29, McIlroy is not just on track to become one of the most successful players ever; he is on the verge of becoming one of the most successful players ever. Consider: Phil Mickelson has won five majors. Nick Faldo, who was the best player of his generation, won six.
McIlroy won his four in a blurry stretch that began with a collapse. On Sunday at the 2011 Masters, he reached for a green jacket and hit a tee shot on 10 so far off the Augusta National course that he could run and use a cell phone without repercussions. He shot 80 that day, and we bring this up because of what happened in the very next major: Congressional, the U.S. Open, and an eight-shot runaway win. He followed it with the PGA championship in 2012—again winning by eight—and the British and PGA Championship in 2014.
In other words: If you thought the first two majors of this year were going to ruin McIlroy’s year, you don’t know the man.
Mistakes don’t stick to McIlroy like they do to other golfers. He can turn a public-relations nightmare into a funny story with a quick smile or a self-deprecating comment, and he can learn the lessons from this year’s Masters and U.S. Open in minutes. Some golfers would need years.
On Saturday night at this year’s Masters, McIlroy tried to play psychological games with Patrick Reed by talking about how all the pressure was on Reed. Reed did not fall into the trap, but McIlroy did. He played on Sunday like he expected Reed to collapse, instead of like a man hunting a championship that would have seen him become just the fifth man to complete the career Grand Slam.
“Even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier,” he said.
At this year’s U.S. Open, McIlroy’s first three nines were 38, 42, and 39. He closed with a 31 that meant nothing. The USGA set up a residence in McIlroy’s head, which was inconvenient for him but ideal for the USGA., which got to save on rent.
Now he seems to remember that his best golf can match up with, and perhaps surpass, anybody else’s. McIlroy made some concessions to the conditions Friday—he hit his driver six times but would have hit it more on a drier day. And on the 15th hole, after leaving a long but makeable putt a bit short, he barked, “Hit it, (expletive)” at himself. Mostly, though, he played like he expected to shoot one of the better numbers of the day. He did that, with his second straight 69.
“Jeez, in those conditions I would have taken that score today,” he said. “It wasn’t that bad but it was just damp enough and cold enough … I’m sitting up here thinking I might have been able to squeeze one or two more shots out of the last couple of days, but that’s it.”
He didn’t need a couple more shots. He needed to play well, play like himself, and stop doing what he did at Augusta and Shinnecock: “Worrying too much about the result, not focusing as much on the process,” as he put it. His process looked pretty good Friday. The results may come this weekend.