LOS ANGELES — A few weeks ago, Rory McIlroy found himself doing something unexpected. He had logged into YouTube and pulled up old major championship highlights — his highlights — from the last time he could call himself a major champion: the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake.
“For whatever reason,” said McIlroy, not exactly shedding light on whether he was searching, reminiscing, or simply a victim of the site’s acute algorithm. What he saw in the video was a curly-haired, 25-year-old version of himself, who was hitting several irons and 3-woods — not driver — off the tee on his way to a win.
“It set something off in my mind about, ‘You know how to do this. You know how to play smart. You don’t have to hit driver all the time.'” McIlroy said of the tape. “Yes, it’s a big weapon, it’s a big advantage, but I keep saying I’ve got more weapons in my arsenal now than I did back then, so I may as well use them and play to them.”
Through two rounds in the 2023 U.S. Open at the Los Angeles Country Club, McIlroy’s smart play and full arsenal has been on display as he sits at 8-under, two shots back of leader Rickie Fowler heading into the weekend.
Even though he has hit multiple drives of over 370 yards so far, McIlroy isn’t just bombing the ball down the fairway on every hole. Instead he’s first in the field in strokes gained off the tee by being in total control of his golf ball no matter what club he hits.
Perhaps no hole embodied that on Friday more than the par-5 8th, where McIlroy took his second round from satisfactory to great. After a 307-yard drive with his 3-wood, McIlroy had 218 yards to the pin, which was tucked way left on the green. His sightline blocked by a tree, McIlroy produced a high, sweeping draw that fed right into its intended spot. Twenty-one feet for eagle turned into a tap-in birdie.
The nature of a competitive golf round can sometimes provide a cruel perspective depending on what happens on the final hole. On Thursday, McIlroy got off to a scorching start, making five birdies on the front nine only to stall on the back nine and card his first and only bogey of the day on the 18th hole. An impressive 5-under round felt short-changed by its anticlimactic conclusion.
In his second round, McIlroy started on the back nine where he carded three bogeys and only one birdie. Then he made the turn and the scoring sprint began. McIlroy birdied six holes with his lone bogey on that nine coming on the 4th and his best shot coming on the last — a carved 7-iron straight at the 9th hole pin that nearly went in for an ace. It made Friday’s 3-under round feel somehow better than Thursday’s opener.
“Obviously at least for me, there’s quite a scoring discrepancy from the front nine to the back nine.” McIlroy said “It feels like a sort of golf course where you try to make your score on the front and then try to hang on on the back.”
The concept of hanging on, for McIlroy, has proved to be a tenuous one. His best chance at breaking his major drought came last year at the 2022 Open Championship in St. Andrews, where he held a share of the lead going into the final round but did not manage to hold on. It was a stellar year that still included three PGA Tour wins and 10 finishes inside the top 10, including at every major. Still, that major win continued to elude him.
“No one wants me to win another major more than I do,” said McIlroy. “The desire is obviously there. I’ve been trying and I’ve come close over the past nine years or whatever it is, and I keep coming back.”
McIlroy’s self-reflection appears to be at an all-time high at this point of his career — and not just because he’s watching himself on YouTube. He mentioned Friday how he hasn’t been patient enough in the past and how he’s “taken on too much” at times. Though he was referring to his aggressive golf game, those words could also apply to McIlroy’s role off the course over the last year.
A golf world that was rocked by LIV Golf and now is attempting to put itself back together via a shocking deal between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has turned McIlroy from its PGA Tour protagonist to a bystander. In turn, McIlroy has attempted to recede from the spotlight this week as much as possible for a player of his caliber. Despite being scheduled to talk to the media on Tuesday ahead of the tournament, McIlroy opted out. And after Thursday’s 5-under round he also chose to not speak to reporters.
Following Friday’s round, McIlroy did speak in the interview room, where every question was about golf and his performance. The words LIV, PIF, or even PGA Tour were never uttered, and the topic that was much-discussed from Monday to Wednesday felt like it had happened in a distant reality that McIlroy had decided not to be a part of.
Given the tumultuous nature of the last year or so, it makes sense that McIlroy is trying to keep things simple. Earlier this week, he walked LACC with just a putter and a couple of wedges, taking in a golf course unfamiliar to him with a fresh mind. And throughout his first two rounds alongside Brooks Koepka, the two have been constantly chatting and smiling, a sort of amicable symbol for how much the noise in and around the golf world can be muted once the ball is in the air.
So far, that approach seems to be working well for the four-time major winner. But whether it results in a win or another close call by weekend’s end won’t be determined by such things. McIlroy, for his part, seems to recognize just that. In the face of a major drought that has lasted so long the Open is returning to Hoylake next month, he can only do one thing: keep trying.
“I feel like I’ve shown a lot of resilience in my career, a lot of ups and downs, and I keep coming back,” said McIlroy. “And whether that means that I get rewarded or I get punched in the gut or whatever it is, I’ll always keep coming back.”