McIlroy in contention for second Claret Jug
As it turns out, all Rory McIlroy needed to break out of his slump was a well-timed pep talk and a string of par saves.
McIlroy appeared left for dead after starting The Open with five bogeys over his first six holes at Royal Birkdale, the cumulative effect of consecutive missed cuts weighing on him like a yoke. He seemed confused; he seemed frustrated. Frankly, the 2014 Champion Golfer of the Year seemed lost.
But the turnaround proved even more swift than his original decline, as McIlroy got things back on track to close out his opening round and then built upon his momentum Friday, where he birdied three of his first six holes en route to a 2-under 68.
Sitting at 1 under for the tournament and having avoided the most demanding conditions Southport had to offer, McIlroy is now suddenly in position to contend for his second Claret Jug.
What a difference a day makes.
“I was very proud of myself that I hung in there and tried to stay as positive as I possibly could,” McIlroy said. “But look, I just had to turn it around. I had to find a couple of little key thoughts, and I feel like I have. And I went with those today, and it worked.”
The familiar strut and swagger that have been absent for much of McIlroy’s recent stretch returned with vigor during a second round in which he launched drives, flagged a number of accurate approaches and needed only 24 putts. The turnaround was sparked originally by his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, who pulled his man to the side when his opening round was in free-fall.
“You’re Rory McIlroy,” Fitzgerald urged. “What are you doing?”
McIlroy at first blew off the urging, but soon after responded with a birdie. Then another, and two more before the round ended to turn a disaster into a more palatable, 1-over 71. Across a 14-hole stretch that bridged his first and second rounds, McIlroy recorded seven birdies without dropping a shot to rocket up the big yellow leaderboard lining the 18th green.
“He’s playing pretty good,” said world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who played the first two rounds with McIlroy. “Obviously got off to a rough start yesterday, but battled back and got off to a really good start today.”
While the birdies allowed him to get back into contention, it was a string of critical par saves in the middle of his round that helped him stay there. McIlroy scrambled for pars on Nos. 10, 11 and 12, each eliciting a subtle emotional reaction from a man who knows exactly what it takes to win The Open.
“That stretch, 10, 11, 12, just to keep the momentum going and keep the round going, they were all huge,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think any one was more important than the other, but all three together were massive.”
McIlroy has a history of turning his form around on a dime, and he appears in the midst of doing so once again this week at Royal Birkdale. Trailing the leaders by 10 shots at one point during the opening round, the Ulsterman now sits only three shots off the clubhouse lead set by Matt Kuchar.
While conditions are far from the ones he experienced en route to lifting the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool in 2014, McIlroy relishes another opportunity to compete for what would be his fifth major title. His title chances, left on life support less than two hours into his opening round, are now very much alive.
“They’re both huge rounds for very different reasons,” McIlroy said. “But this was definitely the round that got me back into the championship.”