DEREK LAWRENSON: Just relax Rory! McIlroy can hit the major levels this week at the US Open if he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself
- Rory McIlroy is aiming to get back in golf’s winning circle this week
- The Northern Irishman will tee up at the US Open at Torrey Pines
- McIlroy has come unstuck on the big stage because of the many pressures
- Fellow Brit Paul Casey is in form and also one to watch at the tournament
On the face of it, you wouldn’t bet on Rory McIlroy reversing his long run of average form at the majors and enjoying a summer revival at either the 121st US Open, starting on Thursday, or the 149th Open at Royal St George’s next month.
The major where he’s missed the cut on four occasions in nine appearances since his victory a decade ago, with no subsequent top fives to his name? Or the Kent venue that is comfortably his least favourite on the Open rota?
Body language counts for a lot with Rory. Even before he hit a ball at the US PGA Championship at Kiawah last month, you could tell he didn’t fancy his chances. But this time?
Rory McIlroy is aiming to get back in golf’s winning circle this week playing at the US Open
Call it blind faith if you will, but there was a jauntiness to his stride as he made his way straight from a one-hour workout to the press interview area. Then there’s the words of his coach, Pete Cowen.
A month or so ago, he was pleading for more time working with the Northern Irishman before anyone should pass judgement. Not now.
‘I had a long weekend with him in Florida before coming here and it was a different Rory, we could see some real progress,’ the Yorkshireman told Sportsmail.
‘We’re at the stage now where, if you watched him on the practice ground, you’d ask who was going to finish second. That’s how gifted he is and how well he’s hitting it.
‘But we all know it’s a totally different ball game moving from the range to the first tee at a major.’
McIlroy has started to hit consistency again and will be among the frontrunners at Torrey Pines
Rory knows it better than anyone. You only have to cast a dispiriting glance down the lengthy list of recent first-round failures in the Grand Slams to understand the chronic problems he’s had delivering come Thursday.
Typical Rory, he confronts the question as to why head on.
‘It’s clear to me that I’ve been guilty of putting far too much pressure on myself,’ he said.
‘You can see that in the times when I’ve played well from the second round onwards because, in a peculiar way, playing badly on day one frees you up for the rest of the event.
‘I like all the work I’ve done with Pete this week. We had some really good days on the range. The mechanics and the technical aspect are there but now you’ve got the mental challenge of trusting it all and executing in a major.
‘Last week, if I’d played this course I’m confident I’d have shot in the mid-sixties every day, so how do you get to that freewheeling point, where it’s like you don’t care when you really care so much? That’s the challenge I’ve got coming up.’
Dressed in a rather colourful Nike top that he won’t be wearing on the course in competition, he looked relaxed and excited about what lies ahead.
If he can trust his driver, this course should fit his eye perfectly, for it offers the big hitters a sizeable advantage. No wind of any consequence is in the forecast.
‘There’s some US Open courses where it’s difficult to see a good score but I like the way they’ve set this one up,’ McIlroy said.
‘It makes me feel like I did when I saw Congressional for the first time in 2011. Of course there was a lot less going on in my head back then, so let’s see if I can bring out that 22-year-old again.’
Cowen added: ‘He just needs a big week now in a big competition, so he has that confidence in everything again. When that happens, watch out.’
McIlroy (left) is looking to rid himself of unnecessary pressure that he feels affects his game
It’s been an eerily quiet week so far. The only spectators allowed in to this point were members of the military and their families, who had the course to themselves on Wednesday.
San Diego is a town with a huge military presence, as illustrated by the stream of jets on practice manoeuvres flying over the spectacular venue each day, with their reminder of an all-too real world rather than this fantasy one.
On Thursday morning, as California enjoys its own Freedom Day from Covid restrictions, an undisclosed number of spectators will give the place a more customary feel, but what happens thereafter is anyone’s guess.
After a man from Japan won for the first time in four years at the Masters, and a 50-year-old won the PGA, only a fool would feel confident making any predictions for the next four days.
Illustrating the current state of flux is the fact world No 1 Dustin Johnson hasn’t made so much as a halfway cut in a major this year.
Then there’s the course, a curious mixture of incredible coastal holes and deathly dull ones away from the clifftop; where the bumpy poa annua greens — the grass that golfers love to hate — make life unpredictable for anyone with an afternoon tee-time.
Don’t be surprised, therefore, if we have a winner totally out of left-field, perhaps even more so than Phil Mickelson or Hideki Matsuyama.
Tiger Woods might have won the US Open round here in 2008 — but let’s not forget that if he’d missed his 12ft birdie putt on the 18th green on Sunday to force a play-off, it would have been Rocco Mediate.
As for the Europeans in general — with no American major wins since the 2017 Masters — and the UK contingent in particular, with a solitary victory for Justin Rose in 2013 since Rory a decade ago, it’s certainly time.
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