EEight years since Rory McIlroy came here to try to win the major he needs to complete the Grand Slam, and he feels like he’s done it eight different ways. There was the McIlroy who had discovered meditation, and the McIlroy who was fixated on his method, the McIlroy who had read self-help books, the McIlroy who studied the science of the swing, and the McIlroy who was muscular because he was spending so much time in the gym; there was McIlroy who talked about the importance of the Masters and the McIlroy who downplayed it. None of them succeeded. So this year he brought boring Rory.
At the start of the week, McIlroy kept talking about being conservative, disciplined and patient. His plan was to play for the middle of the green, pull out birdie putts when they came and make sure he stayed out of the kind of trouble that ends in the big numbers leaving him with too much to do. Sunday. Which wasn’t a bad strategy as far as they were concerned. The only problem with that, as he says himself, is that it’s not a style of play that comes naturally to him. McIlroy is a risk-taker, a shooter, a heartbreaker: he sees too much possibility in the game to take it slowly and steadily. “It goes against my nature.”
It might suit one of the two men he was paired with better – Brooks Koepka, who always seemed like a man who knows exactly what he wants to do and how he’s going to try to do it. It was an intriguing grouping. Koepka is 31, McIlroy 32, they’ve both won four majors and they have a bit of history. Once, when Koepka was asked if they were rivals, he said they couldn’t be because McIlroy hadn’t won a major since he was on tour. McIlroy pointed out shortly after that Koepka had only won four more events on the tour. He did not mention that he had won 14 in the same time. He didn’t need it.
Koepka isn’t so outspoken anymore, his form has plummeted since undergoing knee surgery last year, and here he followed his opening round 75 with another and finished six shots above the by. He’s just discovered a lesson McIlroy learned long ago, which is that the game isn’t always as easy as it looks when you win it all.
McIlroy covered the first nine par, a birdie in 2nd balancing a bogey in 5th, but he did it the hard way. On that 2nd, he blew his drive wide into the trees, then made his way to the front of the green and hit a magic 30-yard chip. He saved the par with a superb putt from the front fringe in the 3rd. Then he found himself in trouble again on the 5th tee. His drive flew to the left this time, into a gully behind a clump of pine trees, an impossible hurdle he incredibly managed to clear easily with a high draw on the upper branches. He was less fortunate on the long climb of the 8th, where his wild drive left him with no choice but to return to the fairway. It was about now that things started to get really interesting. The wind was picking up and it soon became so stiff it was kicking up the sand from the bunkers. From there it became a different game and a test of how McIlroy says he wants to play.
In the 10th he got tangled up when he threw his second shot into a bunker, exactly the kind of mistake he said he promised himself he wouldn’t make, then he blew a six iron wide and three putts on the 11th for a double bogey six. That meant he had dropped three punches in 15 minutes and all of a sudden he was back at four, with one eye on the cut line coming quickly behind him. He wasn’t the only player to go off the rails. Ahead of him, Jordan Spieth had just grabbed a triple bogey on the 12th in and out, and in and out of Rae’s Creek. “It wasn’t a good visual,” said McIlroy, who was watching from 11th.
Unlike Spieth and Koepka, moreover, McIlroy managed to get away with it, with birdies in the 13th and 16th. restraint. It was some recovery. But even then, he wasn’t done with the drama. There was another loose drive on the 18th, straight into the trees, and from there he picked up a bunker at the edge of the green and was able to drive up and down for a final par. How did he do it? “It’s maturity. It is experience. It’s going back 13 years in a row empty-handed,” he said.
So yes, McIlroy is close enough to imagine he will be within reach over the weekend. “I feel like I’m there.” The score, 74, was the only stable thing in his roller coaster round. He wasn’t kidding when he said playing boring Rory wasn’t really him.