Rory finds his wave to ride at BirkdaleJuly 21, 2017
On the eve of the Open, McIlroy spoke of finding that elusive spark. On Friday, writes Dan Murphy, the stars aligned and the result was a Rory charge up the leaderboard.
“I’m just waiting for that round or that moment or that week where it clicks and I’ll be off and running. I’ve had little periods like this before in my career, and I’ve been able to bounce back from them. I’d say I was in worse positions than this. I feel like the pieces are all there, it’s just about trying to fit them together.
“I’m trying to figure out how I get back to that position where I was this time two-and-a-half, three years ago. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to get back there and I’m doing everything I can. And hopefully the start of that crest of a wave happens this week.”
Rory McIlroy, Royal Birkdale, Wednesday
When Rory McIlroy made his fifth bogey in the first six holes against a solitary par on Thursday afternoon he slumped into a tie for 121st position. He was 10 shots behind the early leader Jordan Spieth.
Then he got up and down from sand at the short 7th. Following a quick hook off the 8th tee, he found himself in an undignified pose, the ball in thick rough way above his feet. It was all he could do to chop it out. From there, a wedge shot finished 20 feet away and another bogey beckoned.
Except it didn’t. McIlroy holed for par and those two saves proved to be the turning point he had been striving for.
“There’s a big difference between five over par and six over,” said McIlroy. “And that was big. Then I started hitting some real quality shots coming in. I hit two good shots into 9. And then I started to hit a lot of greens and give myself a lot of chances. It was a big momentum shift, if you can say you have momentum being five over after 7,” he said.
Four inward birdies followed and when McIlroy teed off on Friday, it felt like an extension of the same round.
The tone was set with an opening birdie, taking advantage of the 1st playing mercifully downwind.
The crowd immediately sensed the beginnings of a Rory charge.
Another followed at the 3rd, but the best of the three was at the 6th. A power fade took out the huge bunker protecting the dogleg and a 6-iron set off at the left edge of the green fell off beautifully towards the flag cut on the right. It finished four feet away and when McIlroy suddenly finds his mojo he looks like a completely different man on the greens.
He knocked it in with a certain clarity of purpose.
Through 27 holes, McIlroy had played the first nine in five over and the next 18 in seven under.
Suddenly, he was back in the top 10.
The Rory charge was on.
Or so we thought. After a faultless front nine, the game again became more difficult on the way home.
Not that he was alone in that on what was a devilishly gusty day on the Southport coast.
Par was saved on the 10th courtesy of a 12-footer celebrated with a fist pump. Further scrambles were successful on the next two holes. His luck ran out at the 13th, but a stiffed chip at the next preserved momentum.
It couldn’t continue and the six he ran up at the par-5 15th, the easiest hole of the day, might have been even worse.
McIlroy was wobbling. His fragile confidence makes it that much more difficult, having found a wave, to ride on the crest of it.
For a couple of hours, he was there.
“I think when you ride on the crest of a wave, it’s easy to get caught up with those expectations and you start believing them,” he had said on Wednesday. “And of course, I have been able to play golf in stretches that if I continued that type of golf for six, seven, eight years, yes, I would be able to win a lot more.”
Fortunately, there was another par 5 to come and this time McIlroy made no mistake. A drive and an iron was enough to trundle through the back of the 567-yarder, from where a fourth birdie of the day was safely tucked away.
A par at the last and the Northern Irishman was round in 68 for a sub-par halfway total and a place in the top 10 heading into the weekend.
All of which seemed a distant prospect following that early horror show on Thursday.
“I got off to a good start, which I think is important today,” he said. “The back nine is playing really, really difficult. So to birdie three of the first six and give myself that little bit of a cushion to play with was nice. I made some key up-and-downs on the start of the back nine.
“To be in after two days and be under-par for this championship after the way I started, I’m ecstatic with that,” he said.
The huge Birkdale galleries loved every moment of the Rory charge.
We are not quite yet watching McIlroy at his thrilling, mesmerising best but he is right in contention for his fifth major title.
After the season he has been enduring, that must make the 28-year-old a considerably happier man. The self-belief is coming back.
For more from Royal Birkdale, check out our dedicated Open site.