‘I’m going to go down swinging’: Rory McIlroy charges into contention on Day 2 at Carnoustie

July 20, 2018
Rory McIlroy at British Open

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — When an Open is led by the likes of Kevin Kisner, Erik Van Rooyen, Tony Finau and Zander Lombard, it almost feels like it’s led by no one at all.

No disrespect intended, but the top of the 18-hole leaderboard at this British Open was by no means sexy. How many times has a Charley Hoffman first round lead been met with “Well, we’ll see,” instead of, “Wow! We’ll see!” There’s a stark difference between the two, and Charley often owns the former. Rory McIlroy owns the latter. Win four majors and everyone is anxious for you to win your fifth.

McIlroy golfed his ball around a rainy, downtrodden, and rather different Carnoustie Friday morning, notching a second-straight 69. Fueled by four birdies, he finally made the British Open leaderboard feel like something.

“I feel very comfortable out there. I played within myself,” McIlroy said. “I haven’t taken on too much. It has felt — I don’t want to say easy, but it’s felt comfortable.”

At Carnoustie, that makes almost no sense. This place breeds carnage, not comfort. There’s a reason world no. 1 Dustin Johnson missed the cut. Same for world no. 2 Justin Thomas. But when McIlroy says he’s comfortable, he’s not talking about his body or his swing or the fact that he doesn’t feel the need to wear KT Tape. He’s talking about his mind and his commitment to an approach.

At this year’s two prior majors, McIlroy felt he was timid. You’d have to take his word for it. From the final group Sunday at Augusta, he took himself off the broadcast with a 74. Thursday at Shinnecock he played his way out of the weekend with an 80. This week, he’s going full bambino.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging,”[image:14183307]

Sounds like a man who owned four majors at age 25, left the door open for his peers, and is upset that they stole all the trophies. Rory left Augusta as a beaten man. He left Shinnecock no different. At Carnoustie, he’s likely had the worse of the two draws, playing Thursday in the afternoon (when it was windier) and Friday in the morning (when it was rainier). When Friday’s rounds are complete, the stats will likely back him up.

“Look, I’m sitting up here thinking I might have been able to squeeze one or two more shots out of the last couple of days, but that’s it,” he said. “I’m very happy with where I’m at.”

Freedom is incalculable in golf, but it’s one of the greatest assets a player can have. If you can give it to yourself, even better. Dry and windier on Thursday, McIlroy smashed driver all over the hard and fast Carnoustie. Wetter and (just a touch) softer Friday, he hit driver just six times. It wasn’t a length contest, but rather a ball-striking affair. Freedom at Carnoustie is willingness to attack it differently each day. Get to the green however you have to. Thus far, he’s reached them in regulation 75% of the time. Only a handful of players will do better. Even fewer know what it’s like to turn 36 good holes at a major into 72 good ones.

Toward the end of his press conference, after McIlroy had talked out his approach, how great he feels and what it’ll likely take to win, the questions became more random. He was asked about Tommy Fleetwood’s development into a world-class player. He was even asked about next year’s Open, which will be held in his native land Northern Ireland. For any other player, that would have felt awkward, perhaps even off-putting, but for McIlroy it’s not. With him, there’s no inevitable question of if. It’s when.

By the time the interview had ended, Zach Johnson had tapped in for a 67. Through 36 holes, Johnson has bested McIlroy by two shots. Early in his round, Kevin Kisner remained in the party at six under. They sit there atop the leaderboard, but it doesn’t feel like they’re leading quite yet.