PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – There are a lot of players who can hit Tour-caliber golf shots, but to contend at major championships a player must know more than how to feather a 7-iron or hit a power fade with a driver.
At the ripe old age of 25, Rory McIlroy can hit every shot in the book and has plenty of major experience.
He opened with 63 at the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews to take the lead, and followed it with an 80 in windy conditions the next day.
He led the Masters in the final round in 2011 but imploded on the back nine. He turned it around and ran away with the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club two months later. Then he crushed the field at the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island Resort for his second major title.
Those experiences, the good and the bad, have shaped his approach to the majors. On the eve of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, McIlroy is getting crafty and clearly has a plan for his equipment and course management.
After practice rounds on the Donald Ross masterpiece last Monday and Tuesday, he respects the course and knows that despite the absence of traditional rough, it will be brutal.
McIlroy’s reconnaissance showed that a modification to his equipment was necessary.
“It’s a long course, a long setup,” he said of the 7,565-yard No. 2 from the comfort of the PGA National Resort & Spa clubhouse after a practice session in 90-degree heat. “There are going to be a few holes where I need a 3-iron. I can think of a few par-4s where I’m going to need a 3-iron off the tee. The sixth hole is a long par-3 (219 yards), and I’m probably going to need a 3-iron into that green.”
McIlroy usually doesn’t carry a 3-iron, but he will at Pinehurst. To make room, he’s pulling out a wedge and going with a three-wedge system.
McIlroy probably will bench his Nike VR X3X Toe Sweep lob wedge, which he used for the first time in winning the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship on May 25. He instead will use his previous lob wedge, a VR Forged set at 59 degrees.
“There’s not going to be any rough, and the big advantage, I thought, with the Toe Sweep, was how it reacted in the rough,” McIlroy said. “I’m not sure it’s going to be in the bag.”
Before the start of a major, most players break out a new lob wedge and maybe a sand wedge to ensure the grooves are sharp. McIlroy has done that, but what was really impressive was hearing him talk about his game plan in such a disciplined tone.
At Pinehurst, McIlroy said he will not aim at the flags.
“Middle of the green, middle of the green, middle of the green,” he said. “If you short-side yourself, you bring a really large number into play. I’m going to adopt a really conservative game plan next week. I think if your iron game is in really good shape, then you can hit the middle of those greens. Even if it’s a 30- or 40-foot birdie putt every time, you’re going to do really well.”
Coming from a golfer who says he can hit his driver about 325 yards and smash his 3-wood in the neighborhood of 290, it sounds blasphemous, but that’s his plan.
He has played Pinehurst No. 2 only twice, but he knows his strategy on every hole.
“Iron off the first, driver off the second, iron off the third,” he said. “Driver on four, driver on five, six is the par 3, iron on seven.”
At the 617-yard, par-5 10th, McIlroy will not even entertain the thought of going for the green in two.
“I’m playing that 3-iron, 6-iron, wedge,” he said matter-of-factly. “Yeah, I’ll be hitting iron off the tee. You know, I’d rather have a wedge from the middle of the fairway than a 3-wood from, wherever. That would probably lead to a chip from a tight angle. It’s just not a birdie hole. It’s a three-shot hole, so 3-iron, 6-iron, wedge.”
USGA executive director and course-setup guru Mike Davis is going to tempt players to be heroic. The key for McIlroy – and the rest of the field – might just be resisting the bait and being patient, even if he knows he can hit every shot in the book.