PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – In a game of targets, Rory McIlroy hit most of his during Thursday’s first round of the 119th U.S. Open.
After an opening bogey, the 2011 champion went stumble-free as he collected four birdies in a 3-under-par 68 that left him two strokes off the early lead of Rickie Fowler.
But that 68 represented more than a solid opening bid in pursuit of a fifth major victory. It was a generous down payment on a goal McIlroy revealed on a Wednesday evening car ride across the Pebble Beach property. Asked if he had a number in mind for the week, he replied, “I think four 69s would do it.”
It also represented a bullseye on some more immediate objectives. The world No. 3 was anxious to put himself in the frame on day one at a major championship, a stage on which he has of late tended to stall and fall too far behind the leaders. That happened at Augusta National, when he began the Masters with an over-par round of 73. It happened again last month at Bethpage Black, where he got proceedings underway at the PGA Championship with a 2-over 72.
His 68 also represented the snapping of a couple of crummy streaks in the U.S. Open. It was the first time McIlroy has broken 70 in the tournament since Sunday at Chambers Bay four years ago. It was his first opening round in the 60s since 2011, when he romped to an 8-shot win at Congressional, and a dozen strokes better than the 80 he posted last year at Shinnecock Hills, when he missed the cut for the third straight year.
“I stayed patient. I played really, really solid golf,” McIlroy said. “I did what you’re supposed to do at a U.S. Open. Make a lot of pars and chip off the birdies when you can. It was a really good day’s work.”
It’s been a really good year’s work thus far for the Northern Irishman. He’s made 11 starts in regular PGA Tour events and finished in the top 10 on 10 occasions, including two wins. The most recent came at the RBC Canadian Open five days ago courtesy of a 64-61 weekend. But as much as he has feasted at Tour stops, McIlroy is almost five years into a famine in the majors, all the way back to the PGA Championship in 2014.
Yet McIlroy posted some other numbers Thursday at Pebble Beach that offer succor to his fans and an omen to his opponents. He gained almost three strokes on the field with his putter, good for fourth best in the field at the time he signed his scorecard. His peerless ballstriking means that an average week with the putter can be enough to win. Today was much better than average, but some inevitable slippage in his putting performance can be offset with gains elsewhere as the championship progresses.
By mid-afternoon he was barely cracking the top 20 in Strokes Gained Off the Tee, a category in which he is a dominant No. 1 on the PGA Tour. He was not in the top 50 in Strokes Gained Approach the Green, despite being fifth on Tour in that area. He hit 9 of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens, but needed just 26 putts. He will expect to improve on that as he steams toward Sunday night.
On his way back to the locker room after his round, McIlroy strode across the range where guys like Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka were warming up for their rounds. He had that familiar bounce in his step, the almost-cocky strut of a man who knew he had hit his target, knew he had snapped a handful of shoddy streaks, and knew he had posted his name high on the leaderboard for all to see. Like he said, a good day’s work.