PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – What could we learn from Rory McIlroy that his rounds of 67-66-64-61 in winning the recent RBC Canadian Open didn’t already tell us?
In recording his 16th PGA Tour victory on Sunday, McIlroy broke the tournament scoring record by five shots, with the outcome never in doubt during the final round.
Could McIlroy say anything in his news conference Wednesday at Pebble Beach Golf Links in advance of the U.S. Open that would be more insightful than his 15-under-par weekend? His statement on the golf course in Canada was more impressive than anything he could say in words before the Open.
But will the halo effect from north of the border extend into this week on the Monterey Peninsula?
For McIlroy, whose four major championships include the 2011 U.S. Open, his performance in recent years in golf’s biggest events has been underwhelming for a player of his caliber. Yes, he posted nine top-10 finishes in his past 17 major starts since winning the 2014 PGA, but he has been shut out in the trophy hunt in the past 4½ seasons.
So, McIlroy scrutinized every aspect of his game, on and off the course, and decided that he needed to be playing in the U.S. almost exclusively. That ruffled a few feathers back home in the British Isles, when McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, said that he would not play in the Irish Open at Lahinch, due to his newly adopted PGA Tour schedule.
Some fans complained that he had forsaken his roots and was leaving his home fans behind.
Paul McGinley, a former European Ryder Cup captain, was not happy that McIlroy decided to skip the Irish Open. After talking with McIlroy at the PGA Championship about his decision, McGinley came to a better understanding.
“You move on,” McGinley said. “The Irish Open is bigger than Rory McIlroy; he'll be the first to admit that. We have had Seve [Ballesteros] win it; we have had [Nick] Faldo win it; we have had [Bernhard] Langer win it. On and on, and the Irish Open will remain in 25 years’ time when Rory's not playing anymore, and that's the way it is.”
McIlroy, 30, seeks more continuity in his game as he attempts to get back to winning major championships.
“He's resolute,” McGinley said. “It’s like, Not only am I going to win; I'm going to dominate. And he looks like a man that's absolutely on a mission, not just to win but to set down a marker. I think he's figured out these majors, what he needs to do to win them.”
During the final round in Canada, McIlroy shifted his mindset after four consecutive birdies got him to 9 under with four holes to play at par-70 Hamilton Golf & Country Club. A 59 was within reach. Though he sandwiched two bogeys around an eagle at the par-5 17th and shot 9-under 61, he showed that he held ultimate control over his game and ignored the rest of the field.
“I think this time it's more of an affirmation of what I can do when I play with complete freedom like I did today or over the weekend,” said McIlroy, who also won the Players Championship this season. “Even like the Players Championship, I sort of had to grind it out. Conditions were tough. You're sort of just hanging on, playing into the right spots, and I felt like this week I was free. I trusted myself 100 percent, and I hit the shots when I needed to.”
McIlroy conceded that the victory in Canada probably gave him more confidence than the one in March at the Players because of the way he played: Freely. But little of it will matter if McIlroy doesn’t win a second U.S. Open (tee times).
With his game seemingly back in major-championship form, McIlroy now simply needs to get the job done.
A victory at Pebble Beach this week not only would validate his decision to play almost exclusively on the PGA Tour, but it would kick-start a career that – at least in the recent major championships – has been stuck in neutral.
And at McIlroy’s level, major titles are the only ones that truly matter.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli