SAN FRANCISCO – Happy hour had arrived early at Olympic Club, so a few liquored-up fans wearing oversized sunglasses and American-flag pants cheered heartily for their favorite golfer who was in danger of missing the cut in the U.S. Open.
You’ve got this, Rory!
Just like Congressional!
The par-4 seventh hole at Olympic measured 275 yards on Friday, tempting even the short-knockers to try and drive the green. On the tee, Rory McIlroy grabbed driver, wound into a full coil — the way only 23-year-olds can do, with their loose backs and full extensions — then let loose a massive tee shot that floated majestically over a tall pine, over a greenside bunker, and settled 20 feet behind the hole. Behind the green, fans roared. That’d be for eagle.
Rory, you sexy beast!
Told you: Just like Congressional!
Sadly, this was nothing like Congressional.
The eagle putt didn’t drop, and the ensuing birdie moved McIlroy to 9 over par, a shot above the projected cut line. One last chance. On the par-3 eighth, he hit his approach onto the front of the green, about 20 feet away. It was a good look for birdie, a must-have if he hoped to play the weekend. McIlroy rapped the ball up the hill . . . but it burned the top edge. Believing then that he had missed the cut, by one, Rory promptly botched the 3-foot comebacker, too. He finished at 10-over 150.
Nope, definitely not like Congressional.
“If the cut is at 9 (over),” McIlroy said later, “I won’t be feeling too good tonight on my way home.”
After signing his scorecard, he retreated to the players’ locker room, thereby dodging a horde of reporters who were waiting in the flash area, eager to probe. In the locker room, McIlroy sat silently on a bench, autographing photos, text-messaging on his cellphone.
Casey Martin, the disabled golfer, came hobbling through the hallway, ready to pack up his belongings. The men’s coach at Oregon was likely to miss the cut too, and his locker was near Rory’s. Martin patted the kid on the back, then he patted him on the shoulder too. He told Rory he was a big fan. He told him not to get down. He told him there are brighter days ahead.
“This just reminds you that you have to keep working hard and it doesn’t come easy to you all the time,” said McIlroy, enduring one of the worst stretches of his pro career, having missed the cut in four of his past five starts worldwide.
“It hasn’t been a good run over the past six weeks, but I still see enough good stuff in the rounds that it does give me hope that it’s not very far away.”
It’s easy, and unfair, to compare McIlroy’s performance in this year’s Open to last year’s romp in D.C. His 36-hole score here (10-over 150) is 19 strokes higher than a year ago, when he shattered multiple scoring records on his way to an eight-stroke victory at rain-softened Congressional, a performance so dominant it supposedly marked the dawning of the Rory Era. Since then, though, he’s gone T-25, T-64, T-40 and MC in his past four majors.
“They set this up like a classic U.S. Open,” said McIlroy.
So, is Rory not well-suited for this type of grind-it-out golf?
Was last year’s setup merely a PGA Tour event with U.S. Open signage?
With its thick rough, tilted fairways and brutal opening stretch, the Olympic Club likely won’t yield an under-par winner this year. Yes, there’s a reason the Nos. 1- and 2-ranked players won’t stick around for the weekend here. There are few chances to make up shots. There is no reprieve. There is a need for precision, for pluck.
Said World No. 1 Luke Donald, who finished at 11 over, “I was just a little off, and that’s gonna get you around a U.S. Open course.”
The USGA certainly was well-intentioned in trotting out the top three ranked players — Donald, McIlroy and Lee Westwood — in the same group for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open. Of course, no one expected the trio to combine for three birdies — four fewer than first-round leader Michael Thompson — and shoot 19 over par in Round 1.
On Friday, they resumed their long slog back toward relevance. For his part, Donald drained a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 4 (his 14th of the day), then raised his hands in mock celebration. Westwood had his shining moment on 6, when he poured in a bomb for birdie.
McIlroy never elicited such cheers, at least not this week. When his must-make putt attempt on 6 slid by the cup, he cradled his putter between his neck and left shoulder, exhaled deeply, then bopped himself in the back of the head with his flatstick. That didn’t help either.
“I felt like I played decent the past two days,” McIlroy said, “but this course is just so punishing.”
And with that, McIlroy hopped into the passenger seat of a golf cart, an iPhone by his ear, and his father, Gerry, and a friend standing on the back. They drove toward the bustling tented village — with its concession stands, massive TV screens and electronic leaderboards — and fans cleared the way.
Strange thing. Hardly anyone noticed who sat in the cart.