DUBLIN, Ohio – Golf is a funny game.
Ben Curtis said recently his game began to rebound when he changed the order in which he places his hands on his putter grip. James Driscoll practiced in bare feet after shooting an opening-round 73 at the Memorial Tournament. And Rory McIlroy, the heir-apparent to Tiger Woods, made a quadruple bogey on his third hole, the par-3 12th, before rallying for a one-under 71 Thursday — becoming only the third player at the Memorial Tournament since 1983 to post a quadruple bogey or worse and go on to shoot even par or better.
“I was just like, here we go again,” McIlroy said.
Who else has the firepower to turn it around like that? Four over through three holes, McIlroy birdied 14 and 15, bogeyed 17, and then birdied three, eagled five—he pitched in from in front of the green— and birdied nine to dodge the specter of a third straight missed cut and, improbably, zoom into contention.
“I said if I can get it back to even par here, that would be a good score,” McIlroy said. “And to finish one better, then that is a bonus.”
Sometimes a 71 is more than a 71, and on a sunny, calm day in Ohio, McIlroy, the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, reminded us why he’s been anointed as golf’s next big thing. He came into the Memorial trying to regroup after two missed cuts, and in the midst of swing refinements with his longtime coach, Michael Bannon. Still, he impressed.
“It’s still a work in progress,” McIlroy said, “but just trying to get the ball started on a better line and just trying to get my swing back to where it was at the start of the year. I crept into a few bad habits; trying to tease those back out again.”
Luke Donald, who replaced McIlroy atop the World Ranking with a win at the BMW PGA last weekend, also shot 71 while playing with McIlroy and Keegan Bradley (76). Four players shot three-under 69, the best score in the morning wave. In order to reclaim the top ranking this week, McIlroy must win and Donald would have to finish outside the top 13.
You will be hearing a lot about McIlroy over the next few weeks, since the U.S. Open at Olympic Club begins in less than two weeks. McIlroy decimated the field at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, where he shot 16-under and finished eight shots clear of the next closest competitor. Firepower.
And yet because golf is the most fickle game, McIlroy has had to cope with results that he and his fans are unaccustomed to. He was in contention at the Masters until shooting 77-76 to tumble into a tie for 40th. He bounced back by nearly winning the Wells Fargo, losing to Rickie Fowler in a sudden-death playoff that also included D.A. Points, but shot 72-76 to miss the cut at the Players Championship a week later. Then he shot 74-79 at the BMW PGA last week in England, and returned to Wentworth to beat balls with Bannon on Saturday morning.
As a result of his uneven play, McIlroy entered next week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, abandoning his habit of resting the week before a major.
“I just feel like I need some rounds,” he said. “These two day weeks aren't really that good for me (laughter), so I just want to get some competitive rounds in. I'm working on a few things, and I feel trying to put them into competition will be the best way for me to prepare going into the U.S. Open.
“Everyone goes through this,” McIlroy added, “where they just don't feel that comfortable with their game. It's funny because I felt really good the week at Quail Hollow, got into a playoff there. The Players I felt okay. Everyone knows it's not one of my favorite venues of the year, but I tried my best, and it just didn't happen. I felt like my game was in good shape then. And then I took the week off and I came back to Wentworth and felt like it was okay, but once I got into the competitive rounds, I just started to doubt myself a little bit.”
The USGA has made a monster out of Olympic Club, which may feature the toughest opening six holes of any U.S. Open, all but eliminating a winning score of 16 under. No matter—McIlroy plays hard courses well, too, as evidenced by his course-record, 10-under 62 to win the 2010 Wells Fargo at difficult Quail Hollow.
After his missed cut last weekend, McIlroy vowed to redouble his efforts, and his sessions on the range have been going up to “four, five hours,” he said. He said he saw “enough good ones” in his uneven 71 at Muirfield Village to be encouraged.
“He stuck in well,” said Donald, who also didn’t have his “A” game Thursday.
The firepower wasn’t all the way back, but McIlroy vowed to hit “a lot of balls between now and the U.S. Open.”
Don’t count him out. Golf is a funny game.