Watching Rory McIlroy at a major is never boring. Steve Carroll witnessed a quartet of strokes during US Open Friday that he believes could prove crucial
Should Rory McIlroy’s major drought carry on much longer pop stars will start doing benefit concerts. No one – and especially him – needs reminding it’s been nearly five years since he last tasted glory in one of the four tournaments every player wants to win.
But after an opening 68 at Pebble Beach, his best start at a US Open since he won at Congressional eight years ago, McIlroy put himself right in the mix for major number five with a Friday 69 to lie within striking distance of halfway leader Gary Woodland.
You’ll know, of course, about the birdies and that double at 14, but this second stanza for the Northern Irishman was anything but straightforward.
There were a fab four shots, played at different points throughout the round, I watched that seemed pretty crucial to his progress but might not all have made the highlight reels.
Let’s see if you agree with this key quartet of McIlroy moments…
Bunker shot at the 5th
We’d heartily cheered the first birdie of the day at the previous hole but Rory’s tee shot was always finding the left greenside bunker.
I know bunker shots are largely no issue to the very best but, up close, this looked delicate. I was already thinking of the many ways I could hit the face or thin it right into the ocean.
The green sloped away from him on landing so anything pitched even a fraction too hard would run past the flag and off the other side.
Too soft a touch, though, and it would stay in the sand. I simply can’t comprehend how they hit these shots. McIlroy’s clubface seemed to float under the ball.
Speed, speed – I’m forever being told when it comes to perfecting good sand technique – but it felt like McIlroy just feathered it out.
It landed barely a yard on the putting surface and yet it picked up pace and ran out to about 15 inches. Please someone tell me how to do that.
Par save at the 8th
The chip was every one of our worst nightmares, out of a thicket of greenside rough, on a downhill lie, awaiting a slick green with a putt that was going to accelerate the moment it hit the danceflooor.
McIlroy looked at one with the level – leaning through the slope. Pros always look connected to the ground when they do that and I’m not sure how gravity holds them up. But it clearly works. Rory actually landed it on the fringe, nearly holed it, and yet it still raced 11 feet past.
The shot that counts – the key one for our purposes – was the putt. It was struck with such purpose, at such a decent pace, that the outcome was being cheered almost a yard out.
Putt at the 12th
Even those of us stood 150 yards away knew the tee shot was in trouble the moment it was in the air. It just looked short – a stalling effort – and so it proved as it dumped right into the middle of the huge bunker that guards the front of the hole.
With the pin 10 on, it looked a fiendishly difficult shot. I couldn’t see the bottom of the flag from my position, which was half a dozen feet above that of Rory, and it appeared there was nowhere to stop the ball.
McIlroy took pretty much a full swing at it and did really well to get it to come to a halt about 20 feet past.
There was something about him at that point, though, a purposeful stride that would soon vanish momentarily, and he parked the putt into the centre.
Approach at the 15th
After spending pre-tournament time telling himself not to chase, McIlroy was doing his best Usain Bolt impression off the tee at 15.
The energy went completely out of the gallery when the 3-wood plopped into the fairway bunker. It felt like the wheels were coming completely off following the bogey and double bogey on the previous two holes.
But, of the four I’ve picked out, this was clearly the most important swing of the day and might yet prove to be of the week.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 15, 2019
It wasn’t just the shot itself, which was an incredible 9-iron to five feet below the hole – followed by a putt which McIlroy would curl into the centre – it was how it energised both the man and those of us following.
From wondering whether he was going to play his way completely out of contention, and that was really what everyone thought was happening out on the course, the focus returned and the birdie that followed at 16 was a consequence of the regained adrenaline.