ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Earlier this week, Rory McIlroy arrived at St. Andrews, the coastal village where the Scots have been playing golf since the early 15th century, chasing the 21-year-old version of himself from a dozen years ago.
In the first round of the 2010 Open Championship at the Old Course at St. Andrews, McIlroy shot 9-under 63, matching the lowest score ever in a single round at a major. McIlroy shot 8-over 80 in windy conditions the next day and ultimately tied for third, but those remarkable opening 18 holes were the beginning of his stardom.
From 2011 to 2014, McIlroy won four of the 16 majors played: the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship, 2014 Open Championship and 2014 PGA Championship. Amazingly, he hasn’t finished first in one since. There have been 30 majors played since his most recent victory, won by 22 different players.
On Thursday, McIlroy at least put himself in position to end that frustrating drought by carding a 6-under 66 in the first round of the 150th Open. He was tied for second among players in the early wave; PGA Tour rookie Cameron Young had the clubhouse lead after recording an 8-under 64.
It was McIlroy’s best score after 18 holes in a major since his latest major victory, the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in 2014.
“I need to go out [Friday] and back up what I just did,” McIlroy said. “I think that’s important to do. But again, this golf course isn’t going to change that much, I don’t think, between [Thursday] and [Friday] in terms of conditions. I’ve seen the golf course now in tournament play and tournament conditions and know what to expect. [Friday is] an important run, just to go out and back up what I’ve done.”
The end of McIlroy’s major drought — during the celebration of the 150th Open, which is being staged at the home of golf — would be a fitting end to what has been in many ways the “Summer of Rory.”
McIlroy, 33, has won twice on tour — the CJ Cup at Summit in October and the RBC Canadian Open in June — to climb to No. 2 in the world. He finished in the top 10 in each of the first three majors for the first time, including a career-best solo second at the Masters.
While world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler won four times in six starts this spring, including his first major at the Masters, McIlroy has emerged as one of the most vocal and important voices for the PGA Tour in its ongoing battle against LIV Golf for the best players in the world.
McIlroy has been described as the “conscience of golf” and the sport’s “moral compass.” At the U.S. Open in June, McIlroy said he was taking a hard line against LIV Golf because “it’s the right thing to do.”
While McIlroy seemed to understand why aging players, including his friends and former Ryder Cup teammates Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood, left the tour to accept multimillion-dollar signing bonuses from LIV Golf, he has been more critical of younger players who have jumped. He also vented about players who “say one thing and then do another,” calling them “duplicitous” and taking the “easy way out.”
Among the younger players who jumped to LIV Golf are former major champions Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed.
“I believe that my best days are still ahead of me, and I think theirs are too,” McIlroy said before the U.S. Open. “So that’s where it feels like you’re taking the easy way out. Nothing is guaranteed. You have to show up and play well to earn it.”
After telling BBC Sports that he wished the rift hadn’t “gotten messy” and that there were “probably steps that were missed,” McIlroy reaffirmed his stance in an interview with CBS Sports last week.
“There’s no room in the golf world for LIV Golf,” McIlroy said. “I don’t agree with what LIV is doing. If LIV went away tomorrow, I’d be super happy.”
Amazingly, McIlroy has played some of his best golf while shouldering that burden. He finished second at the Masters and shot 8-under 64 in the final round. He was eighth at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills after shooting 65 in the first round; he shot 67 in the opening round and tied for fifth at the U.S. Open.
McIlroy’s first round at the Old Course on Thursday was just as good. He had seven birdies and only one bogey, on the par-4 13th, after he tried to get “too cute” with his second shot.
“Everything feels very settled,” McIlroy said. “No real issues with my game. Everything feels like it’s in good shape. Everything feels just sort of nice and quiet, which is a nice way to be. And yeah, thinking well.”
The irony is that everything else around the four-time major champion, at least when it comes to golf, seems to be unsettled. He has been able to block out the noise when it mattered most.
Defending Open champion Collin Morikawa played the final round of the Masters with McIlroy, and he was in his threesome again at the Old Course on Thursday.
“Augusta was near flawless,” Morikawa said. “I’m trying to remember if he made even a bogey. I don’t think he did. That was like flawless golf, right? To end it the way we did was even that much more spectacular to enjoy that. [Thursday] was a really solid round of golf. Didn’t make any errors, hit it in the right spots. When he was out of position, put it in a great spot.
“Overall, it was awesome. That’s what I need the next three days if I want to get myself in this tournament.”
McIlroy was the defending Open champion the last time the tournament was played at St. Andrews in 2015. After winning at Royal Liverpool in 2014, he never got a chance to go back-to-back because he was forced to pull out of the field after injuring an ankle in a soccer game with friends. He was the first defending champion to miss The Open since Bobby Jones in 1954.
It was Jones, a 13-time major winner, who once said that a player’s career wasn’t complete without winning a Claret Jug at St. Andrews.
McIlroy called the feat the “holy grail” of golf.
“I don’t know if a golfer’s career isn’t complete if you don’t, but I think it’s the holy grail of our sport,” McIlroy said. “So not a lot of people are going to get that opportunity to achieve that, but that’s what winning an Open at St Andrews is. It’s one of the highest achievements that you can have in golf.”
He has spent the summer defending the game. Now, he has a chance to let his game do the rest of the talking.