But, more than a decade on from his Open debut, at this course in 2007, there was nothing passive about his approach to the opening round of this year’s championship nor, for that matter, his opinions on Butch Harmon’s description of him as “robotic”.
The latter he bullishly dismissed, asserting that he is “the opposite end of the spectrum to someone that’s mechanical”. Undermining the value of the American pundit’s comments, he added: “It’s easy to make comments when you don’t know what’s happening. I haven’t spoken to Butch in a long time. He doesn’t know what I’m working on in my swing. He doesn’t know what’s in my head. So it’s easy to make comments and easy to speculate. But unless you actually know what’s happening, I just really don’t take any notice of it.”
The former world No 1 was in fighting mood and it had shown in the way he tackled a course that had been toughened up to compensate for benign weather conditions, getting round with a 2-under par 69 to end the day only three behind leader Kevin Kisner.
Tricky hole positions posed conundrums and many were cowed by the prospect of bogeys. But, brandishing his driver, the way younger men wield a sense of ambition and belief, the four-time major winner stomped all over Carnoustie’s Car-Nasty reputation, figuratively at least. His Nike golf shoes were emblazoned with the word Nasty in homage to the venue and its penchant for causing players pain.
“I definitely thought that, you know, it was going to be beneficial to be as aggressive as I possibly could be. If you play aggressively around here, you might make more bogeys than you would playing it safe, but you’re going to make more birdies as well.
“After the fifth hole,” where he dropped his only shot of the day, “I didn’t look like making bogey until 16 when I missed the green.” He saved par in that one and, with birdies on 3, 12 and 14, he vindicated his bold approach. “Obviously, I got away with some tee shots, but at the same time, I think that’s what I have to do.
“That’s my game plan this week. I’m convinced that that’s the way that I should play it. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it worked out pretty well today.
“On the third tee, the guys hit irons down there, and I’m waiting for about 15 minutes to let the group in front finish, and I’ve got a driver in my hand, and I’m like, ‘I’d better hit a good drive here’. It was nice to hit that driver on, get over the back of the green, but to get that up-and-down for birdie. It sort of was validation, like, ‘yes, this is the right way to do it’. It was almost a little personal victory, I guess.”
That kind of power can be difficult to harness, though, and partly explains the fact he only found 29 per cent of fairways.
“But as I said at the start of the week, it’s very playable from not on the fairway. As long as you don’t hit it in the fairway bunkers, you’re always going to have a shot at the green. That’s why I tried to stay as aggressive as I possibly could even though I wasn’t hitting the driver maybe as well as I could. There’s a lot of pins that were tucked away either on the left side of the green or the right side. So I was trying so hard to make sure that I was down one side of the fairway and you have an angle to the pin.”
Risk, it is said, is the clue that dreams are both real and great and McIlroy can lay claim to both. Without a major win since 2014, he is keen to bolster his personal tally and prove, to himself as much as anyone else, that he is not willing to passively take a backseat.
“Again, different players are going to have a different way to see how they’re going to play this golf course,” he said. “I know Tiger’s out there hitting a lot of irons off tees and doing it his own way. No one’s going to argue with him.
“He did it like that at Hoylake, and he was able to win there. But I think Jon Rahm (pictured) shot a couple under as well and he’s probably even more aggressive than I am around here.
“Hopefully I will hit a few more fairways, but I’ll adopt the same strategy [tomorrow].”