BROOKLINE, Mass. — It might seem coincidental that Rory McIlroy is again playing some of the best golf of his career at a time when the new LIV Golf Invitational Series is threatening the PGA Tour.
However, McIlroy, an outspoken critic of the new circuit being fronted by two-time Open winner Greg Norman and financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment fund, insists that’s not the case.
After grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the 122nd U.S. Open after the morning wave at The Country Club on Thursday, McIlroy insists he’s motivated by something else.
“It’s been eight years since I won a major, and I just want to get my hands on one again,” McIlroy said.
With an opening-round 3-under 67, McIlroy put himself in great position to do just that. In each of his four previous major championship victories, in the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships and 2014 Open Championship, he started the tournaments with a round of 67 or better.
“You feel like you’re right in the tournament from the start of the week, which is nice,” McIlroy said. “I’m going into [Friday] with the mindset of let’s keep it going, rather than where is the cut line or whatever. If you don’t get off to a great start, those thoughts start to creep in. It’s certainly a different mindset when you get off to a good start, and yeah, I’ve just got to keep it going.”
It was an eventful opening round for McIlroy at the golf course outside Boston. He started on the back nine and carded a bogey-free, 2-under 33. Then on the par-4 fifth hole, he pushed his tee shot right. His ball ended up in very thick rough above a bunker.
“You’re going to encounter things at a U.S. Open, whether they be lies or stuff like that, that you just don’t really encounter any other week,” McIlroy said. “It’s hard not to get frustrated because I’m walking up there going like, just come back into the bunker. The thickest rough on the course is around the edges of the bunkers. So I was sort of cursing the USGA whenever I was going up to the ball.”
Making matters worse, McIlroy’s feet were well below the ball. He managed to knock his second shot only about 10 yards — into another fairway bunker. He slammed his club wildly twice into the sand. Remarkably, McIlroy was able to get up and down out of the sand to save par.
“I gave the sand a couple of whacks because I’d already messed it up, so it wasn’t like it was much more work for [caddie] Harry [Diamond],” McIlroy said. “And then I just reset and played a decent bunker shot, and then it was really nice to hole that putt. But, yeah, you’re going to encounter things this week that you don’t usually come across the other weeks of the year, and you just have to try to accept them as best you can.”
After making birdies on Nos. 7 and 8 to move to 4-under, McIlroy lost his cool again on the par-4 ninth, his final hole. He pushed his approach shot to the right of the green and threw his club in frustration. He ended up making a bogey.
McIlroy said his reactions in the bunker on the fifth hole and fairway on the ninth were “almost to remind yourself sometimes how much it means to you.”
“Again, some of these reactions that maybe you saw out there today, whether it be hitting the sand on 5 or the club throw on 9, you just have to be so precise and so exact at this golf tournament, maybe compared to some others,” McIlroy said. “If any little thing doesn’t quite go right, you’re sort of putting yourself behind the 8-ball. The margins are just so fine in this tournament, and I think you can sort of see that out there with some of the reactions.”
While McIlroy wouldn’t say the emergence of LIV Golf and the defection of several top PGA Tour players, including Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, have inspired him to play better golf, that’s exactly what he has been doing the past few weeks.
He won the RBC Canadian Open in Ontario last week. It was the 21st victory of his career, which moved him past Norman in career wins. McIlroy was the last player to win a major a week after winning a PGA Tour event, and now he’s attempting to become the first player to do that in the U.S. Open.
McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, has also become the strongest voice of support for the PGA Tour, which really needs one right now.
“I’m just being me. I’m living my life,” McIlroy said. “I’m doing what I think is right and trying to play the best golf that I possibly can. I wasn’t asked to be put here. I wasn’t trying to be in this position. I’m just being me.”