Within Striking Distance at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy Has Yet Another Major Chance

The four-time major champion has famously tried for a decade for a fifth, and Sunday is another good chance to end the drought.
Rory McIlroy stands three shots behind Bryson DeChambeau with one round to go at the U.S. Open.
Rory McIlroy stands three shots behind Bryson DeChambeau with one round to go at the U.S. Open. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

PINEHURST, N.C. — A large sum of money undoubtedly would have been in play had there been odds on Rory McIlroy not winning another major championship in the 10 years since he last hoisted one of the game’s biggest trophies.

It’s an annual rite of spring, McIlroy’s pursuit of the career Grand Slam at the Masters.

There’s the inevitable belief that if he could have won two PGA Championships to this point, a third would make perfect sense.

Another U.S. Open? While it might have been an unlikely first major championship for McIlroy way back in 2011, he’s certainly had his chances over the past several years after deciding to embrace the challenge of the venues rather than fight it.

And, of course, there is the British Open, seemingly a major meant for McIlroy, and where he had perhaps his closest call and biggest disappointment when he failed to convert a lead two years ago at the Home of Golf.

Now he’s at America’s anointed Home of Golf, the acclaimed Pinehurst No. 2, a venue McIlroy has lauded, respected and—mostly—handled. There are bound to be mistakes, and he made a few coming in Saturday to cost himself a place in the final group with leader Bryson DeChambeau.

But three strokes is nothing in this cauldron and on a golf course that can jump up and grab you at any time. Ask Ludvig Aberg, who made a triple-bogey 7 at the 13th hole. Ask DeChambeau, who seemingly out of nowhere made a double-bogey 6 at the 16th.

Disaster lurks and there is McIlroy in prime position to get that elusive fifth major title. Can he?

“I'm pretty much in the same position that I was last year going into the final day at LACC,” McIlroy said, referring to last year’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, where he finished a shot behind Wyndham Clark. “So familiar position, been here many times before, and hopefully tomorrow I produce the golf that's needed to go one better.”

McIlroy would be in the final group with DeChambeau were it not for two late bogeys, both at par-3s—the 15th and 17th holes. His score of 69 was good enough to get him into a three-way tie with France’s Matthieu Pavon and his Ryder Cup nemesis Patrick Cantlay.

It was in Rome last year where McIlroy erupted in the aftermath of his Saturday match with Cantlay, criticizing caddie Joe LaCava for getting too close to his line and leading to the outside drama that so envelops the conversation.

A few months later, in an interview with the Irish Independent, McIlroy attempted to explain what went down and acknowledged that “my relationship with Cantlay is average at best. We don’t have a ton in common and we see the world quite differently.”

Some of that could stem from their time together on the PGA Tour Policy Board and the ongoing negotiations with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. McIlroy went on to explain to the newspaper that LaCava, who used to caddie for Tiger Woods, had changed since “he started caddying for that d---.”

Ah, golf drama!

Perhaps that will serve McIlroy well on Sunday as he plays with Cantlay for the first time since that squabble. Surely he needs no motivation. The winner of 26 PGA Tour titles including two this year, McIlroy, 35, surely sees another major as what is needed the most.

Would it be better to be grouped with DeChambeau, whose 67 gave him three rounds in the 60s and a three-shot advantage?

There’s something to be said for being able to stare your opponent down. Then again, McIlroy getting into a macho driving contest with the long-hitting DeChambeau might be counter-productive.

A few years ago, McIlroy admitted to getting out of sorts by chasing the distance that DeChambeau had gained. Perhaps it is best to funnel that energy elsewhere.

“I'm excited about it,” McIlroy said. “It would have been nice to hole that putt at the last and get to 5 under and break out of that logjam at 4. Pros and cons. Pros and cons to being in the last group, and maybe playing one group ahead might not necessarily be a bad thing.”

DeChambeau, 30, has played brilliantly to this point. His double bogey at the 16th hole on Saturday was the outlier, and he immediately bounced back with a birdie at the 17th hole.

It was his seventh consecutive round of 69 or better in a major championship and was in keeping with his solid year in the game’s biggest tournaments.

While DeChambeau has not won a LIV Golf League event in 2024 after capturing two last year, he’s been a big factor in the majors, sharing the 36-hole lead at the Masters before tying for sixth and then fighting until the end last month at the PGA Championship, where Xander Schauffele beat him with a final-hole birdie.

Much has changed for DeChambeau in the four years since he won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot and he’s enjoyed a resurgence of late after going through a lengthy period of injury and scorn associated with his move to LIV Golf.

But DeChambeau, who shed a good bit of the excess weight he gained in his beefy Bryson days, has endured while keeping on brand with his “Mad Scientist” persona. Just like at the PGA, he’s received plenty of support.

“It was amazing,” he said of the fans Saturday. “I can’t thank them enough. It was a blessing. Man, they riled me up. It just gives me a spike in my adrenaline and allows me to focus more on delivering for the fans and for myself and for my family. It just inspires me.”

Of course, it’s about more than just McIlroy and DeChambeau. Pavon, who joined the PGA Tour this year after earning an exemption through the DP World Tour, won the Farmers Insurance Open in January. He stood firm Saturday, adding a 69 to his scores of 67 and 70.

Cantlay is a world-class player, ranked ninth in the Official World Golf Ranking, although a surprisingly infrequent contender in majors whose gone 18 months without a win on the PGA Tour. He had a steady round with two birdies and two bogeys.

Aberg fell off the pace in just his third major championship with a 72, but is still just five strokes back, as is Hideki Matsuyama, who has quietly stayed in contention, adding a 70 to his second-round 66.

There is pressure on any player trying to win a major championship, but it’s fair to wonder if the most is on McIlroy. Those four majors are so long ago, so much has changed in his life and game and the overall golf world in general, that it is as if he is trying to get it done for the first time.

Since winning the 2014 PGA Championship, McIlroy has posted 20 top-10 finishes in majors, including nine top 5s. Starting at the 2019 U.S. Open, he’s gone T9, T8, T7, T5 and second.

Two years ago, he hit every green in regulation during the final round at the Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland and still lost the Open when he was overtaken by Cam Smith, who shot 64.

“I love the test that Pinehurst is presenting,” McIlroy said Saturday evening. “And you’ve got to focus and concentrate on every single shot out there. It’s what a U.S. Open should be like. It’s obviously great to be in the mix.”

McIlroy surely loves this situation. You fight hard for the opportunities, which are often elusive. But at some point, it has to happen for him ... or perhaps it might not happen at all.


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Bob Harig

BOB HARIG

Bob Harig is a senior writer covering golf for Sports Illustrated. He has more than 25 years experience on the beat, including 15 at ESPN. Harig is a regular guest on Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio and has written two books, "DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods" and "Tiger and Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry." He graduated from Indiana University where he earned an Evans Scholarship, named in honor of the great amateur golfer Charles (Chick) Evans Jr. Harig, a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America, lives in Clearwater, Fla.