PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — During Thursday’s first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Rory McIlroy stepped up to the 15th tee at Spyglass Hill and hit a wedge shot fat, missing the green entirely on a petite par-3.
Suddenly, McIlroy’s 2018 PGA Tour debut was beginning to look a lot like his winless 2017 campaign, when he was so often betrayed by his scoring clubs. But then something cute happened. Rory’s pro-am partner this week is another McIlroy, his father, Gerry, who looked hale and hearty throughout the round, busting long, straight drives that drew appreciative smiles from his son.
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On Spy’s 15th hole, Gerry had covered the flag with his tee shot and now had a downhill 12-footer for birdie, which he somehow left two feet short. It says something about Gerry’s charm and passion for the game that this one-time bartender has been welcomed as a member at Seminole, where golf’s ruling class winters. After his embarrassing birdie effort he turned to stare at his son in disbelief, all the while muttering ugly words in the lovely lilt of their native Northern Ireland. Rory couldn’t help but laugh.
“What are you looking at me for?” he asked, plaintively. They were still laughing when they walked off the green.
On a perfect day in Pebble Beach, Rory could not have had a sunnier attitude. All is right in his world these days — father by his side, best friend Harry Diamond serving as his new caddie, bride Erica patrolling the gallery, effortlessly stylish in the latest in Tour-wife chic. After three straight seasons compromised by injury, Rory is finally healthy, and he looked quite spry while summiting Spyglass’s many hills. He saved par on 15 and again on the tricky 17th hole, and then finished with a flourish with a kick-in birdie for a 68 that left him in 16th place, three strokes behind co-leaders Kevin Streelman and Beau Hossler. Including two top-3 finishes in the Mid East, McIlroy has shot a score in the 60s in eight of his nine rounds this year. Afterward, he was asked if any part of his game is not working.
“Everything is pretty good,” he said. “I’m scrambling well when I need to, I feel like I’ve made good strides with my putting over the off-season. I’m driving the ball good. Everything I feel has gotten better, which is a good thing.”
This fast start couldn’t come at a better time for McIlroy, the 29 year-old future Hall of Famer. Since his last major championship victory, way back in 2014, Jordan Spieth has won three big ones while McIlroy’s contemporaries Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Jason Day have all snagged a major, too.
Now more young studs are coming through, with Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm both asserting their dominance over the last year. McIlroy’s World Ranking may have slipped to 8th but he remains the game’s most towering talent. Every 67 he shoots is another brick in the wall as he rebuilds his self-belief and reconstructs his aura. McIlroy’s colleagues remember how good he was from 2012-14, when he won four majors, including a pair of eight-stroke laughers. “He has the tools to be kind of Tigeresque,” Day said on the eve of the Pro-Am.
McIlroy is eager to be the player he once was. “I want to be one of the best players to ever have played the game when I decide to call it quits,” he said on Wednesday. “And I know with the right dedication and working on the right things that could be achievable for me.”
So much of that will come down to attitude. For years, McIlroy had the game’s best strut, a bouncy, shoulder-rolling gait that was pure swag. He looked like a man encumbered over the last few seasons and no wonder — he had to deal with putting problems, injuries, equipment changes, a nasty lawsuit with his former agent, the stress of planning a wedding and other complications that come with being a global superstar. For McIlroy to fully access his gift he needs to play with the insouciance of his youth, and that is why Pebble Beach was the perfect place to begin this second act of his career.
On the tee of the par-5 7th hole on Thursday, McIlroy was ready to send his drive into orbit when he was distracted by the moving shadow of a careless observer. He backed off and with a little steel in his voice said, “Stand still.” Thus chastised, Gerry didn’t so much as twitch. His son then blocked a drive deep into the forest and then his overly-ambitious recovery shot trickled into a greenside pond. If this had been 2017, a black cloud might have appeared over McIlroy. But the boy who grew up chipping balls into his parents’ washing machine proceeded to hole-out for an improbable birdie.
“You’re forgiven,” Rory told his dad with a smile. It was one little moment of redemption in a season that looks to have plenty of them.