McIlroy at the U.S. Open:
BETHESDA, Md. – It was two months ago, early in April, that Rory McIroy fired the shot heard ‘round the world at the Masters, this being the second, with the first being Gene Sarazen’s 4-wood hole-out in the final round that led to his victory. McIlroy’s is still reverberating. It was that tee shot at the 10th in the final round that hit a tree and ended up some 70 yards to the left of the fairway, back amid those cottages. He was leading at the time, and that tee shot led to a triple bogey-7, which therefore killed his chances of winning that Masters.
Are there Masters scars?
If it hadn’t been for that stray tee shot, we might be asking ourselves, here on the eve of the U.S. Open -- the season’s second major -- whether the 22-year-old Northern Ireland whiz might be going for the Grand Slam. Instead, we’re asking whether that shot is still bouncing around in his head. Did it destroy him, or has he recovered enough to have a reasonable chance at the new, tougher Congressional Country Club?
“No doubt it was a great experience for me,” McIlroy was saying here, and he addressed the whole golf catastrophe with a brightness that belied the fatal effects of that shot. This would leave his audience to wonder, was this Rory speaking, or was he parroting instructions from his shrink du jour? There being no real way to tell one from the other, you’re left to take him at his word.
“I took the positives from it of that week,” he said, if not without exception. “There weren’t many positives to take from Sunday,” he added. “It’s hard. It’s the first time in that situation. You’re going to be feeling the pressure a little bit, and I certainly did. I felt a little different on Sunday than I had done the previous few days. But that’s natural. You’re in with a great chance to win your first major, and it just doesn’t happen.”
Ah-ha. The first step to manhood – acceptance. He didn’t blame a leaf for falling or some bird for chirping. He didn’t use the word “choke,” but he pretty well offered a graceful definition of it, and that’s acceptance if ever heard it. It’s not guarantee of anything except that he has a good foundation. There are plenty of golfers out there with similar scars. Ernie Els is one.
Els considers himself a good one to talk about blown chances, because he’s blown so many himself. Or as he put it more kindly, “…I didn’t quite close a lot of events.” But he hasn’t done badly. He’s won two U.S. Opens – in 1994 at Oakmont and ’97 here at Congressional. He didn’t pick McIlroy as the favorite to win this Open, but he went to lengths not to count him out.
“He’s very young – he’s still learing,” Els said. “He’s got all the talent in the world. He’s a future No. 1, without a doubt. He is incredible, and he’s still learning. He’s 21 years old. He’s not perfect. Nobody’s perfect. But he can really change history again. He’s got that kind of talent. He had an opportunity there, and hopefully he learned from it and he didn’t get too despondent. I think he’s going to win a lot of majors, but he has to win the first to win a lot.”
If the Masters crash has left him wounded, it hasn’t been evident yet. He hasn’t won yet this year, but he hasn’t been limping along, either. In six starts on the PGA Tour, his best finish was fifth, he had four in the top 17, and missed one cut. In eight starts on the European Tour, he had a second and a third, a bunch of healthy double-digits, and a worst of a tie for 24th. He has a plus-minus experience in the U.S. Open. He tied for 10th in his first, in 2009, and he missed the cut last year. So there’s nothing much to be gleaned from that record.
The Masters thing had an odd twist to it, one that maybe even is a bit awkward at times. He’s good friends with the guy who stepped over him and won, South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel. And how to friends ignore something like that, and on the other hand, how do they make chit-chat?
“I think we both are sort of professional about it,” Schwartzel said. “He’s a guy who gets over things very quickly. You don’t want to rub things in. I wouldn’t go in front of him and speak about my good finish, or whatever he did. We had chances to do the same thing. It could have been either one of us, really. And we get on with it.”
On the broad scale, in a U.S. Open that is wide open, McIlroy is given a better than average chance at winning. Not that it has turned his head, he says.
“I’ve learned over the past few months you can’t take a lot of notice from what other people say,” he told the assembled media. “You have to go out and do it yourself.
“It’s very flattering, and it’s great that people are saying these things about me, but I need to do it first. I just need to go out and play the golf that everyone thinks I’m capable of. And if I can do that for four days, then hopefully I’ll be sitting in front of you guys on Sunday night and maybe saying, yeah, maybe I could be a multiple major champion.”
And that didn’t sound like no shrink du jour talk, neither.
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