U.S. Open

U.S. Open 2024: The eternal chaser, Rory McIlroy, is quickly back in the major hunt again

2157475726

Jared C. Tilton

June 13, 2024

PINEHURST, N.C. — Will Rory McIlroy ever run out of ways to make the news? Whether it's the politics of the PGA Tour vs. LIV, his personal and marital life, or his actual play, he has become the inescapable monolith of the golf universe, either smack dab in the spotlight or forcibly dragging the spotlight back toward him, by hook or by crook, when it has the audacity to waver.

On Thursday at the 2024 U.S. Open, it was all good news. Finishing late in the afternoon wave, McIlroy shot a bogey-free 65 at Pinehurst No. 2 to tie Patrick Cantlay for the lead at five under. It's the kind of score that the Donald Ross gem may not yield again in the three days remaining, and that puts him squarely in contention—yet again—to do what he hasn't done in a decade and win another major.

How you react to this news, be it with excitement, dread or apathy, is likely a reflection of your affinity for the Rory roller coaster. If anything, though, the picture McIlroy presented after his round was one of relative equanimity; good actors have a way of conveying sincerity, but there was something like inner peace in his bearing that had the tinge of authenticity.

"I really don't think I embraced U.S. Open setups probably 10 years into my U.S. Open career," he admitted. "I think I really changed my mindset around them in 2019, that one in Pebble, and since then I've also started to enjoy this style of golf a lot more. It's a lot different than the golf that we play week in, week out. I really appreciate that."

2157488506

Sean M. Haffey

He described his strategic approach as "super conservative," his demeanor as "super stoic," and his entire bearing as "100 percent committed to the shots and 100 percent committed to having a good attitude."

That was likely easy early on, when he made birdie at 4 and 5, the first with a seven-foot putt after an impressive 208-yard approach, the second with a 66-foot chip-in. He hit a stretch of pars at that point broken up only by another birdie at 10—a six-footer on the par 5—and then it was back to a game of biding time.

"I hit a good shot into 11, made par, good shot into 12, made par, good shot into 13, made par, good shot into 14, made par, and I was on this run of hitting it to 20 feet and two-putting," he said. "I could have got a little impatient, but I felt like my patience was rewarded there with birdies on two of the last three holes. It was really nice to finish like that."

The exclamation mark came at 18, when another birdie putt of almost exactly 20 feet stood between him and Cantlay:

(In the press conference afterward, he was asked about walking in the putt, a bit of showmanship that's unusual for him, and Rory, honest as ever, admitted that he was walking after it because he thought he left it short.)

It would not be a shock if the legions of Rory fans looked upon this start with a bit of skepticism, but there are good omens. The last three times he opened with a bogey-free round in a major, for instance, he won—the 2014 Open, 2012 PGA and the 2011 U.S. Open. He's only three-for-22 converting 18-hole leads into wins in his PGA Tour career, but two of those wins were majors. Once again, it's all feeling possible, and it may come down to a learned calmness in stressful conditions.

"I went through a run there for a while where my starts at major championships weren't very good," he said after his round. "Probably got myself a little too worked up at the start of the week. But yeah, even back to the PGA, I opened with a five under there at Valhalla. Felt like I played OK … even going all the way back to this tournament last year, opened with a low one. Wasn't quite as low as Rickie [Fowler] and Xander [Schauffele], but it was nice to open up with a low one and feel like you're right in the tournament from the first day."

On top of it all, he knows he needs luck—the kind he had today with his chip-in, or, less dramatically but no less important, with the full distances left on many of his approaches, which let him control spin better than he would have with a three-quarter swing.

Pinehurst generally brings luck into the equation with the wiregrass rough, and McIlroy is smart enough to know that at some point this week, the luck will go against him. But he's in the early wave Friday, when the course should offer more mercy than it might in the afternoon when temperatures rise to triple digits, and with another good round, he could stake a claim for a prize that has eluded him so reliably for nearly a decade.