PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — When he’s feeling it, Rory McIlroy gets this strut. Shoulders back, chest out, chin jutting forward — it’s so hyperaggressive, it’s like he’s daring the course to challenge him. Sometimes, the course takes him up on it.
Problem is, it’s really hard to strut when you get kicked in the TaylorMades. And that’s exactly what happened to McIlroy on the 14th at Pebble Beach Friday. He finished the day at 5-under after a round of 69, and now sits just four strokes off the lead … but it could have been better. So, so much better.
Incredible as it sounds, McIlroy’s now nearly half a decade from his last major, the 2014 PGA Championship. He’s royalty at the U.S. Open thanks to his win in 2011 at Congressional, a win that predates the professional careers of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka. And he’s still very much a vital force on the PGA Tour; he’s won the FedEx Cup, the Ryder Cup and a host of tournaments — including last weekend’s RBC Canadian Open — in the past few years.
So why can’t he win more majors?
Granted, he’s got a brilliant record of top-10 finishes — nine of the 17 majors he’s played since that 2014 PGA, he’s finished T10 or better — but a lot of those are McIlroy’s infamous back-door T-10s, where he plays lights-out golf with the leader far in the distance and the pressure off.
For whatever reason — nerves, loss of concentration, the inexorable rise of Koepka — McIlroy isn’t able to close out major tournaments, and moments like Friday at Pebble’s 14th are the reason why.
The 14th at Pebble is one of the course’s more diabolical holes, a 583-yard par 5 that bends nearly 90 degrees to the right and ends in an elevated green that’s like trying to chip onto the top of a parking garage.
McIlroy had been rolling on the day, carding three birdies an eight-hole stretch to rise all the way up to a tie for second place, a single stroke behind Justin Rose. That strut was in full effect … even after he bogeyed 13 after ending up in a greenside bunker.
But then came 14, and after a decent drive and a lay-up, McIlroy was standing 110 yards from the pin, lying two. An up-and-down and he’d have another birdie on the hole; even a reasonable shot, and he’d walk away with a harmless par.
It wasn’t to be. McIlroy’s first approach got a look at the green and turned tail, rolling all the way back down the hill. His second ended up in another bunker, and McIlroy again had to try to heave the ball up onto the roof that is the green. A two-putt later, and McIlroy had just carded a 5-7 and blown a huge, smoking hole in his U.S. Open chances. He’d tried to get fancy, and he’d gotten knocked down. He wasn’t strutting anymore.
… except this time, McIlroy didn’t roll over. This time, he fought back hard.
The greatest achievement of McIlroy’s career remains that 2011 U.S. Open, which you may recall was exactly 70 days after McIlroy had detonated on the 10th hole of the Masters while he had one arm in the green jacket. To bounce back that quickly, at the very next major, showed an impressive strength of will.
“I was focusing on too many outside factors that I couldn’t control,” McIlroy said of that time, speaking earlier this week. “The only thing I can do is concentrate on myself and control what I do.”
Late on Friday, he pulled off something similar in miniature. After that bogey-double bogey, he went and birdied the next two holes — including a gorgeous 17-foot putt from the fringe on 16. Just like that, he was back within two strokes of then-clubhouse leader Justin Rose. And just like that, the strut came back. (Gary Woodland’s afternoon charge to 9-under put McIlroy four back.)
“I’d done all that work through the first 12 holes, and then to give that back in two holes was disappointing,” McIlroy said after the round. “To be in the position I’m in going into the weekend, I would have taken that at the start of the day.”
McIlroy’s halfway home, and the lead’s close enough to touch. He’s learned plenty about how to lose majors in the last five years. We’ll see if he can hold it together to win another one.
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