'Pieces are in place’ for Rory McIlroy to make major run at U.S. Open

Rory McIlroy-US Open-2017 preview Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

'Pieces are in place’ for Rory McIlroy to make major run at U.S. Open

PGA Tour

'Pieces are in place’ for Rory McIlroy to make major run at U.S. Open

The tapestry that has become his life has been slowly, and quite nicely, stitching together for Rory McIlroy, the wunderkind from Northern Ireland who has grown up before our eyes. He is 28 now, a man’s man, even if we may view him forever as that precocious little freckled lad chipping balls into the home washtub in Holywood.

Those wild, bushy locks that a ballcap did so little to harness have given way to more of a businessman’s cut, and the baby fat and chubby cheeks of his early years have transformed into hard, chiseled muscle. Along with his physical growth, there’s a worldly sensibility and robust inner confidence that he effortlessly exudes.

Inside an Irish castle in April, McIlroy married Erica Stoll, an American girl from Rochester, N.Y. Stevie Wonder played. McIlroy and his bride met at the 2012 Ryder Cup outside Chicago. And last month McIlroy signed a massive multi-year equipment deal with TaylorMade that could pay him in excess of $100 million. The newlyweds have been house-shopping in Jupiter, Fla. Yes, life is pretty good. As the 117th U.S. Open approaches at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis., McIlroy has a sound mindset and is ready to return to his day job with purpose.

“I am in a good place,” McIlroy said in a quiet moment behind the clubhouse at last month’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. “Hopefully when I go out on a golf course, that goes through. Anybody who has been married and is in this position, it’s a great time in someone’s life. We really enjoyed ourselves … but it’s time to get back to what I do.

“All the pieces are in place.”

Body back up to par

Well, most pieces, anyway. McIlroy has been slowed by a nagging rib injury near the bottom of his shoulder blade through much of this season.

He played through the pain at The Players, tying for 35th; the pain wasn’t nearly as intense as in January, when he was diagnosed with a hairline stress fracture. Having taken three weeks off around his grandiose nuptials, McIlroy said he got a bit overzealous in his return, hitting balls for nearly five hours in back-to-back days.

At The Players, he paid a price. Consequently, he had an MRI in Belfast on May 15 (revealing a “low-grade response” to his early-year injury) and withdrew from the BMW Championship at Wentworth and The Memorial in Ohio as a precaution so that he’d be rested and ready to go in Wisconsin.

According to a source, McIlroy has been playing pain free in Ireland and plans to arrive at Erin Hills the weekend prior to the Open. The source requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on McIlroy’s status.

Once he is fully healthy, he appears poised to soar. Some players already are lamenting a PGA Tour season that has been a lengthy grind, but McIlroy is just getting started. He has made only six starts in 2017 and has 15 more global events on his docket. He’s been known to take off on some torrid runs, and would love to get on a roll such as the one he rode in 2014, when in 10 global starts from the Open Championship in July to the European Tour’s season-ender in Dubai, he won three times, was runner-up three more times, rang up eight top-10s and had a worst finish of T-22.

The Summer of McIlroy

It could be a big summer on tap for Rors.

“I think it’s all to do with where you are mentally, if you’re in a good place and you have confidence,” McIlroy said. “And I don’t know if confidence comes from seeing good golf or if confidence comes from hitting it well in practice . . . it can come from any sort of different place. But if you’re confident and you’ve got the right mindset, I think that’s the thing that sparks a good run more than anything else.”

The U.S. Open presents a taxing challenge for him. He did win that big, beautiful silver trophy in 2011, capturing his first major in an eight-shot romp with a record-setting performance (16 under). But the victory came on a declawed golf course (Congressional) that was spongy soft and saturated by rain.

In fact, each of McIlroy’s four major championship victories (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA, 2014 British Open, 2014 PGA) have arrived on courses softened by tournament-week rains.

“There are certain conditions that suit him, but the great players have found ways to play well in all kinds of conditions,” said Ireland’s Paul McGinley,

McIlroy’s 2014 Ryder Cup captain and a man who has had a close relationship with McIlroy for years. “If Rory wants to be considered truly great, that’s what he’s got to do.”

Help along the way

McGinley points to three main factors in McIlroy’s ascension into becoming a superstar: overall maturity; the influence of JP Fitzgerald, a seasoned caddie on his bag since 2008; and McIlroy’s commitment to fitness with trainer Steve McGregor.

“Steve McGregor has had a very big influence,” McGinley said. “Rory always has had swing speed, and Steve works strongly on his stability. Michael Bannon (McIlroy’s instructor) has been there all the way through, and he’s always overseen everything.

He’s been a constant. But the collision of those three things took him to a new level – and then he got confident.

“When he got into that rarified atmosphere at the top of the world rankings, he wasn’t scared, and then he kept on going.”

This U.S. Open, and the majors that follow it, are all about McIlroy taking that next big step. When McGinley speaks of McIlroy, he does so in the context of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who won 18 and 14 majors, respectively. Likewise, Chubby Chandler, the European super agent who was McIlroy’s first handler, says he always knew McIlroy was a once-in-a-generation-type talent. He believes that where McIlroy is at 28 (four majors) is probably right about where he should be.

Rory McIlroy-US Open

* – Rory McIlroy’s -16 at Congressional in 2011 was a tournament record. (Golfweek Graphic)

“If you wanted to map out 10 years 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been far off what he is doing,” Chandler said. “He could have won a couple more majors, sure, but he also could have not won a couple of majors. If he was 28 and won two majors, you’d still say he’s doing pretty well.”

Chandler believes McIlroy’s game still has some room to mature, and that his potential remains boundless.

“You need to be more than one-dimensional to play fast-running courses,” Chandler said, “and that’s why I say he’s got a bit of maturing to do. If you say his game has maturing to do, and he can become a better putter – he’s in the bottom 30 percent of putters on Tour (McIlroy ranked 135th in putting in 2015-16) – then he’s got a lot of improving to do. If he were to get in the top 40 percent in putting, the results are different, right? He could win eight majors in the next 10 years. Easy. Easy.”

McIlroy stands above golf’s logjam

There may be quite a logjam at the apex of golf these days, with Jordan Spieth, then Jason Day, then Dustin Johnson taking turns at the top beginning in 2015. But when it comes to golf’s biggest trophies, McIlroy stands tallest. Among the top six players in last week’s Official World Golf Ranking, McIlroy boasted one fewer major than the other five combined.

Every player has ebbs and flows. When Adam Scott was asked this season whom he’d favor when each one of those top players was performing at his very best, he didn’t hesitate: McIlroy.

“On their best days, Rory and Dustin, very hard to separate, other than I think Rory’s more accomplished at the moment,” Scott said. “That’s with no disrespect to the others.”

McIlroy struggled with his ballstriking and shot an opening-round 77 in the U.S. Open at Oakmont last June. He tried to fight back to make the cut, but a double-bogey at the 36th hole left him two shots beyond the cutline.

It was the third time in eight U.S. Open starts that he failed to make the cut. Perhaps only Johnson consistently can match McIlroy’s usual ballstriking, but McIlroy realizes there is much more to the exam at a U.S. Open.

“You know you’re going to have bad holes,” he said. “They’re going to happen. You put yourself in a bad position and short-side yourself, and you’re going to make some big numbers. I think it’s (about) not being fazed by that. Everybody is going to make bogeys. They’re going to make double bogeys, too.”

4 birdies a day keeps trouble away

McIlroy has a game plan that he brings to difficult U.S. Open venues: His goal is to make four birdies a day, or 16 for the week, try to limit his mistakes, and see where that leaves him on the week.

Rory McIlory-US Open-2017 preview

Rory McIlroy has gotten a major boost in play thanks to the long-term presence of caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

He longs to stay as level mentally as possible, knowing there will be highs and lows. That’s not always easy to do when a golf course is more difficult than honors calculus.

“That’s always been my mindset going into it,” McIlroy said. “But we’re not these sort of robots that just go on. You can remind yourself of that, but you have emotions, and sometimes it’s hard to control those emotions. You have to keep as even-keel as possible. Seventy-two holes is a long way to go, especially in a tournament like that. Even up until the last four or five holes, you know what can happen … you’ve seen it. Look at Winged Foot 10 years ago. So much stuff can happen.”

McIlroy will get to Erin Hills lacking in competitive reps this season, especially considering he is trying to get accustomed to new irons and a new golf ball. (Notes McGinley, who now commentates for Sky, “When it gets a little bit windy and swirly, like it did at Augusta, you need to be able to have miles on the clock with your equipment so that you know what the ball is going to do.”) McIlroy played fairly well at a fast-running U.S. Open at Chambers Bay two years ago (he tied for ninth), and given his pedigree, exactly nobody would be shocked to see his name on the leaderboard at Erin Hills.

‘Some people just have it inside them.’

“Nothing Rory does ever surprises me,” said Irishman Shane Lowry, who has played tournaments against McIlroy since the two were youths. “When he won two majors by eight shots, it didn’t surprise me at all. He’s been like that since we were little, working hard and winning tournaments. When he was on his ‘A’ Game a few years ago, he was unbeatable, I think. Some people just have it inside them. Rory does.”

McGinley admires the resilience inside McIlroy, his innate ability to fall down and bounce back when adversity finds him. McGinley also relishes the hunger to win that he sees inside McIlroy. McIlroy has gone nine majors since winning the 2014 PGA and did not really contend in any last season (he missed two cuts, and T-5 at the Open Championship marked his top finish). At April’s Masters, where McIlroy again was trying to secure a career Grand Slam, he tied for seventh.

“We’re all looking, and hoping, that he kicks on to the next level again,” McGinley said.

Rory McIlroy books Stevie Wonder for wedding ceremony, reports say

Erica Stoll and Rory McIlroy were wed earlier this year.  (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The high expectations of others might as well be dismissed, for McIlroy has ambitious plans of his own, wanting to make his own indelible mark on the game. The easiest path to doing that is to start adding to his major total. And that quest will begin at Erin Hills, a big ballpark with expansive fairways that should favor big hitters.

“I still don’t feel like I’m halfway there to achieving what I want to achieve,” McIlroy said. “So I’m 28 years old. If I can play competitively for the next 15 years, I feel like I’ve still got a lot left to give.”

He has a new marriage, financial security and a new tranquility in his life.

McIlroy said having traveled the world for so long, he is genuinely excited to be a U.S. citizen, meaning he can spend more than 120 days in the country and make Florida his permanent base. Now it’s all about the golf. Good golf. Major-winning golf. That’s the last piece.

“There’s not many question marks going on in my life right now,” McIlroy said. “I feel like everything’s exactly where it’s meant to be, and if you feel like that off the golf course, then I can only imagine that it will help you on it.”

Mr. McIlroy, the tee is yours. The future awaits. Play away.

(Note: This story appeared in the June 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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