Rory McIlroy has been a bit of an enigma this year.
He has racked up more world ranking points than anyone else, including the current No. 1 Dustin Johnson. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational with one of the most electric final rounds on the PGA Tour, a closing 64 that pushed perennial headline-maker Tiger Woods off the front pages.
He also was outdueled by Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final pairing in the Masters, missed the cut in The Players and let 54-hole leads slip through his hands in a pair of European Tour events, including the BMW PGA at Wentworth three weeks ago.
“My game feels good,” said McIlroy, who also is feeling good physically after an injury-plagued 2017 season. “I've played myself into a few final groups. The first major of the year, I played well. I sort of struggled a little bit on Sunday. But I've got a win this year, which is great. I've gotten myself into contention quite a few times. So, would love to do that again this week.”
It’s hard to figure out what to expect from the world’s No. 6-ranked player when the 118th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club gets underway Thursday. His history in the championship doesn’t offer any hints, either.
McIlroy, 29, has missed the cut the previous two years in this championship and four times overall, but he has three top-10 finishes, most recently a tie for ninth place at Chambers Bay in 2015. Of course, another decent effort was his performance in 2011 at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., where he fired a championship record 16-under 268 and lapped the field by eight strokes.
Oddly, his Congressional blitz marks his only finish under par over 72 holes in nine starts in the championship.
Optimism this year springs from within, from an introduction to Shinnecock Hills a few years ago that has had him looking forward to this week ever since.
“I first played here back in 2014, and it's definitely been a U.S. Open I've been looking forward to,” the native of Northern Ireland said. “I love the golf course, especially with how the conditions have been, especially yesterday with a bit of wind and the dryness. It sort of reminds me of some of the courses from back home a little bit, the way the golf course has been playing.”
A four-time major winner who only needs the Masters to complete the career Grand Slam, McIlroy might be in the best golf shape in years when he steps on the 10th tee at 8:02 a.m. Thursday with Phil Mickelson and 2015 U.S. Open winner Jordan Spieth – both of whom also require one win to complete the career Grand Slam, Mickelson in the U.S. Open and Spieth in the PGA Championship.
Like Reed, McIlroy has been lingering on Long Island since the completion of the Memorial Tournament 10 days ago. Other than Saturday, when he walked Shinnecock Hills with a wedge and a putter to become more familiar with the green complexes, McIlroy has played golf 18 of the last 19 days. Among his stops have been National Golf Links of America, adjacent to Shinnecock, and Friars Head, a course designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.
“It was more about fun,” he said. “I wanted to see the golf courses. I have quite a few friends that live around this area, and I just wanted to go out and play with them. The net [benefit] … I don’t think there's been any. I'm hitting the ball well. I'm playing well. Especially in the wind and the conditions that are around here, you sort of get used to the different ball flights. And especially in some of the golf courses I've played, you're seeing different shots, and you're having to use a bit of imagination around the greens. So it's been quite good in that way.”
And there is another benefit to hopping around with the guys for recreational golf.
“I think it does put you in a different frame of mind. You're relaxed out there, and maybe that sort of bleeds into your mindset whenever you're here in a big championship,” McIlroy said. “It's no different. I think that's the thing. If I've got a shot that I need to execute under pressure here this week, it's no different than playing that shot when I'm out there playing with my dad or my buddies or whatever it is. So obviously, there is a separation of the two, but the more you can get into that mindset of being relaxed and enjoying it, the better you're going to play.”
As McIlroy spoke, a weather front moved over Shinnecock Hills, dampening the grounds of the ancient course that has hosted the U.S. Open in three centuries, the only course that holds that distinction.
The Ulsterman is known as a wet-weather maven; all four of his majors have been won on rain-softened tracks. It is not expected to rain much the rest of the week, but perhaps that Wednesday dampening will spur a start he hasn’t enjoyed since his victory. McIlroy has not broken par since his record-shattering week at Congressional. The last two years he opened with 77 and 78, respectively.
If he stops putting himself behind the 8 ball so early, who knows how close he’ll be to the top coming down the stretch on Sunday.
“It feels like it's been a while since I've been in the mix at this championship,” McIlroy pointed out correctly. “With how my game feels, hopefully I can do the right things over the first few days and put myself in a position to win another one.
“I feel good about my game,” he added. “I just want to give myself another chance to win another major championship. It's another opportunity to try and do something great this week.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.