PINEHURST, N.C. — Rory McIlroy’s best is better than anyone else’s. It’s just that we haven’t seen him at his best in a long time, at least not in America. He won the BMW PGA Championship three weeks ago in England, just days after he announced he’d broken up with ex-fiance Caroline Wozniacki, but he hasn’t dazzled us here since 2012.
Which is why his comments at his press conference Wednesday, a day before the start of the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, should perk up the ears of his fans and competitors alike. McIlroy, 25, said he called Jack Nicklaus last week for a few tips on how to win multiple national championships.
Jack’s first question, according to McIlroy, was, “How the hell can you shoot 63 and then 78?” This was in reference to the kid from Northern Ireland firing such wildly divergent opening two rounds at the Memorial.
“Jack, I wasn't meaning to,” McIlroy said he replied. He laughed at the memory of the phone call, and the assembled media laughed with him.
McIlroy finished the Memorial with scores of 69 and 72, which was good enough to tie for 15th place. It wasn’t a top-five finish, like the one he had at Jack’s place before McIlroy’s record-setting victory at rain-soaked Congressional in 2011, but McIlroy remains the favorite to win this week.
“The U.S. Open I won was abnormal,” McIlroy said. “It was wet and low scoring. I haven't won a tournament whenever it's been [hot and dry] like this. That's why I'm relishing the challenge. It's conditions that I haven't won in before, and I'd love to be able to prove to myself and prove to other people that I can win in different conditions.”
Indeed, McIlroy’s U.S. Open record is hardly bulletproof. Besides the one victory, he has one top-10 finish, two missed cuts and a 41st place at Merion last year. Conditions at Pinehurst will require patience to know when to aim for the middle of the green—McIlroy says he will attack only five pins all week—and patience to know when to settle for bogey. That’s all pretty standard stuff, by U.S. Open measures, but it’s an especially tall order for McIlroy. For reasons unknown to him, he hasn’t been able to bounce back from bogeys, and his bad rounds this season, especially on Fridays, have spiraled out of control.
“I’m trying to keep those [bogey] runs off my card,” he said. “It’s strange. I think I'm first in scoring average on the PGA Tour on day one. And I'm like 181st on the second day. It's so strange.”
McIlroy only shared one piece of wisdom Nicklaus offered: Don’t be afraid to change things up in the middle of a potentially bad round, like the 78 on Friday at the Memorial, where McIlroy shot a first-nine 43.
“When he felt like he wasn't swinging well, he'd make a swing change right then and there,” McIlroy said of the 18-time major winner Nicklaus. “He had mental strength to be able to do that and trust what you're doing.”
Tiger Woods is not at Pinehurst this week. Phil Mickelson is the sentimental favorite, Bubba Watson maintains Masters momentum, and Adam Scott is No. 1. Still, McIlroy is the betting favorite.
“Some of the things [Nicklaus] said to me, I'm really thinking about them going into this week,” he said. “He was a great U.S. Open player, and hopefully some of those little nuggets of wisdom that he passed on to me might help this week.”
McIlroy’s best might be about to get even better.