IN the absence of a local hero with any chance of winning this Open Championship, Rory McIlroy has been adopted by the galleries at Royal Liverpool.
As the lad from just across the water moved clear of the field in yesterday’s second round, a growing throng roared him on and off every tee. “C’mon Rory,” said a sign behind the fourth green, a sentiment echoed repeatedly by a crowd that took him to their hearts.
The Northern Irishman would be a popular winner here. There were shades of the old Tiger Woods – who crashed out of contention with a 77 – about the swashbuckling, crowd-pleasing way he exerted a stranglehold on this tournament. Out early on Thursday, and late yesterday, he took full advantage of the week’s most favourable conditions with a hugely significant performance.
Not only did he shoot a six-under-par 66, which gave him a four-shot lead and set up an opportunity for him to become only the third player – after Woods and Jack Nicklaus – to have won three majors by the age of 25. He also kicked, for the moment at least, his mysterious habit of unravelling in second rounds, a phenomenon that prompted fears of another ‘freaky Friday’.
“It’s nice to go out and shoot a good one, so I don’t have to be asked about it again – until I might shoot a good score at Akron, and then people are asking me on Thursday afternoon,” said McIlroy. “It’s understandable. My second rounds this year have been terrible. There isn’t really any explanation, but hopefully I put it to bed today.”
By his own admission, it had been preying on his mind. So often had he followed a good first round with a bad second that it would have been remiss of him not to address the issue. He first became aware of a pattern in Spring, when he shot 71, 77 at Augusta, 69, 76 at Quail Hollow and 70, 74 at Sawgrass. “How the hell can you shoot 63 and then 78?” Nicklaus asked him at the Memorial.
By the time, he had gone 64, 78 in the Scottish Open last week, the press were on to it, which only exacerbated the problem. After carding a 66 in Thursday’s first round here, he acknowledged the mental challenge ahead. His plan, he said, was to meet it one shot at a time, which was hardly a revelation. The day he opts to play two at once will be the day he is really in trouble.
To make matters worse, he opened yesterday’s round with a bogey. After a huge drive left him with a flick to the first green, he contrived to send his approach bouncing through the back. Short with his chip, he missed a par putt from eight feet and immediately relinquished his position as tournament leader.
That, though, was a misleading setback on a day when he was as sharp as his outfit, a charcoal number with lime flashes on his hat, shirt and belt. It certainly put to shame the accompanying ball-spotter who tucked his tablecloth trousers into a pair of long, red socks.
After that early fright on the opening hole, McIlroy quickly recovered his composure with a performance that grew more relaxed and confident as the wind dropped. On another day of blistering heat at Hoylake, McIlroy was on fire, especially after the turn, when he pulled away from the field.
He was conservative when he needed to be, ambitious when the opportunity arose and imaginative when he occasionally lost his way. Take, for instance, the par-5 fifth where his drive travelled almost as far as Hideki Matsuyama, his playing partner, covered in two shots. When McIlroy’s mighty blast ran out of fairway, he hacked out a clump of grass in the process of landing his approach on the back of the green. From there, he was down in two, recovering the stroke dropped at the first.
By the time, he had completed the 10th, there had been three more birdies, not including the pheasant that briefly interrupted play on the eighth green. His move to nine under, three shots clear, came when he again extricated himself from the thick stuff with a lovely chip up the putting surface.
Remarkably, his score would have been better had he not missed relatively easy birdie opportunities on 11 and 12. He had also been expected to take advantage of the par-5 16th, but a rotten lie in fairway sand was followed by a chip sideways and an approach into a greenside trap.
If that interrupted his momentum, he was soon back in the grove, better than ever in fact. On the 18th, a sumptuous chip set up his last birdie, but it was a 396-yard drive on the 17th that really caught the eye. He used the big club six times here, two more than the previous day.
“It’s my foundation,” he said. “I set myself a target in the middle of the back nine to get to 12 under par, and I was able to do that. And some of that was down to how I drove it. I’ve been talking about it all year. Driving is the foundation to any golf game. If my driving is there, then everything else sort of feeds off that in a way.”
Adverse weather is forecast for today, thunderstorms so potentially disruptive that players will contest the third round in groups of three.
The deterioration in conditions will be another challenge for McIlroy, who tends to produce his best when the wind does not blow.
That said, a four-shot cushion will work in his favour, together with the support of those passionate crowds. He has spoken all week about The Open’s unique ambience. He added last night that it would help him to handle the weight of expectation that now rests on his shoulders.
“You try and enjoy every minute of it, even if sometimes it feels like a bit of a grind and you’re working extremely hard to keep it together.
“The atmosphere out there is incredible. To be able to play in front of crowds like that – you have to enjoy it, really.
“I’ve been in this position before in major championships, but I haven’t been in this position in The Open. I’m just really looking forward to the weekend and hopefully continuing the strong play that you’ve seen from me so far.
“It’s fantastic to be able to be in this position in front of the home fans. I felt a lot of great support out there.
“It’s a huge tournament, it’s the Open Championship, one that I’d dearly love to win, but I’m trying not to let myself think about that. It’s only two rounds. There’s still two rounds left. I’m in a great position, but whether I’m one shot in the lead or ten shots in the lead, I’ll just keep trying to do the same thing. There’s still a lot of golf to play.”
McIlroy said that he played with an “inner peace” yesterday. He said that his mind had been free of all thought except for two words that he called upon ahead of every shot.
Asked if he was willing to share those words with the assembled press, the champion in waiting replied: “I’ll tell you on Sunday, hopefully.”