PEBBLE BEACH — The tell made its appearance on the 11th hole. Every golfer has one, that distinguishing feature that lets the galleries know they're cooking. Tiger has the fist pump, Phil his thumbs up. Even Dustin Johnson, the most stoic man in the sport, will curl the left side of his lip when he's got it going.
For Rory McIlroy, that indication is a pronounced strut. It's a beaut, really. McIlroy will puff out his chest and his gait becomes a controlled hurry, like a child told to walk, not run, around the pool. When he does this, McIlroy—already a confident sort—is telling the fans, and field, he's feeling it.
And Rory was clearly feeling things after his birdie putt dropped at Pebble Beach's 11th from 20 feet, his third of the day to move to six under for the tournament, one back of the lead at that moment. McIlroy's upper body was so inflated walking from the green to the 12th tee box it appeared he was about to rip off his shirt and reveal an "S."
But sometimes that kid told to slow down continues to scurry around the pool, resulting in a nasty fall. Each—the saunter and the slip—make McIlroy one of the most fascinating watches in the game, and both were on display Friday afternoon.
McIlroy turned in a two-under 69, which at times felt like it could have been 67 and or a 73, in a tie for fourth at the end of 36 holes.
"Really happy with my position," McIlroy asserted afterwards.
He made birdies at the fourth and seventh, which are somewhat expected, those playing as the second and third easiest holes this week. A player makes his bones at the next three. A combined par 12, 1,470 yards of cliff-hugging madness, getting through this gauntlet at one over is generally considered a win.
McIlroy did one better, and in dramatic fashion. After flying his approach at the eighth over the green, he made a nifty chip and cleaned up the remaining 10 feet for par. He launched a 340-yard drive at the next, his second safely on the green for a stress-free two putt.
On No. 10, McIlroy's tee shot stayed to the left, barreling itself in a bunker. His shot off the sand appeared headed right, at least by McIlroy's body language, one arming the swing in apparent disgust. Either McIlroy misjudged, the wind abided or he was doing his best Hideki Matsuyama impersonation, for that disappointing shot ended up 10 feet from the hole.
What warranted disgust was McIlroy's putt, which just slipped by. Yet the 30-year-old offered a sly smile, knowing he survived Pebble's best punch unscathed.
The 11th gave McIlroy his step, and though the 12th tried to take it away when his approach at the par 3 found a bunker, McIlroy's 20-foot save only gave that stride extra swagger.
However, unrestrained swagger can, and often, backfires. Especially at the U.S. Open, a tournament that requires patience and reverence just as much, if not more so, than gusto.
McIlroy dumped his approach from the 13th fairway into the bunker, and failed to get back-to-back sandies.
"You know, I wasn't disciplined enough with my second shot," McIlroy said. "I was trying to hit something into that back right corner of the green when I've really been preaching middle of the greens all week.
"I was feeling good about myself, six under par, and felt like I could squeeze a couple more out of the round, the last couple of holes and maybe get the lead going into the weekend. I bogeyed that, which is fine, you're going to make some bogeys around here."
What wasn't was the 14th. McIlroy's third at the par 5 spun off the green. He then proceeded to make an unforced error by chunking his fourth into another bunker. He couldn't convert an 11-footer for bogey, and suddenly the Rory Express skidded off the tracks.
"You're in an awkward spot, you're trying to play a very precise shot to get it close to the hole to save your par, and that didn't go to plan," McIlroy explained. "It just sort of compounded the error with another error, which you never really want to do."
In years past, that might have been the end of McIlroy's Open aspirations. This is a different Rory, taking on 2019 with a refocused mindset, not allowing the downs to define him.
“It hasn't been preached to me,” McIlroy said earlier this year at Sawgrass. “It's something where it's been a journey for myself, and I've figured it out myself. But I've definitely had some people point me in the right direction.” A mantra that's clearly worked to the tune of two wins, 10 top-10s and a tour-best 2.737 strokes gained.
Instead of sulking, McIlroy brushed himself off with back-to-back birdies. The first thanks to an approach hit to four feet at the 15th, the next a 17-footer downhiller from the 16th's. The double erased, his strut revived.
"I bounced back well," McIlroy said. "I said to myself, 'I want those shots back.'"
There was more excitement than his par-par finish conveys. McIlroy hit one of the best shots of the day at the 17th, his tee shot resting within 15 feet. Though the putt didn't disappear, there's nothing wrong with par at the treacherous hole. He proceeded to lay-up at the 18th, and his third was slightly pulled to the left. His 30 footer didn't come close, a par not quite as easy a swallow.
Nevertheless, McIlroy's in an enviable spot, four back of Gary Woodland. There are a host of formidable contenders, but McIlroy, along with two-time defending champ Brooks Koepka, raise above the fray.
"It's not going to be easy over the weekend, you're going to make bogeys, you're going to make mistakes, it's going to happen," McIlroy said. "And if I can keep responding to those mistakes like I did today I'll be right there."
Coming off a resounding seven-shot win at the RBC Canadian Open, McIlroy asserted it's the best he's felt about his game in awhile.
Which was redundant; as he made his way up the 18th, his strut said it all.