Rory McIlroy arrived at Pebble Beach with an extra wedge in his bag and an extra bounce in his step.
He also brought the putter he used to shoot 61 on Sunday to win the Canadian Open after trading it for a Toronto Raptors jersey, a story all by itself.
“The guy I gave it to was running the golf tournament,” McIlroy said. “He knows it’s not for him.”
Putter safely rescued, McIlroy is brimming with confidence as the U.S. Open begins for real Thursday. He’s got good reason to be after romping to a seven-shot victory in Canada that had him smiling about both his game and his chances to add a second Open title to the one he won in 2011.
After missing the cut in his last three Opens, he can’t wait to get going at this one.
“I think the last time I felt this free or felt the way I felt last week probably has to go back to maybe the run at the playoffs in ’16,” McIlroy said. “So it’s probably been a couple of years, two, 2 1/2 years.”
The results reflect that confidence, at least when it comes to wins. McIlroy has two this year, including The Players Championship, though he failed to contend at the Masters and missed the cut at the Memorial last month.
That missed cut, though, just might have been a blessing in disguise. McIlroy said he used the time he would have spent playing to practice, and discovered enough in his game to turn the Canadian Open into a runaway.
He did it by ditching the 3-iron and going with four wedges in his bag, a move he made with Pebble Beach in mind.
“If I’ve learned one thing about the U.S. Open over all these years is your distance control has to be spot on,” he said. “That was the reason for putting that extra wedge in. And I got a nice bit of practice with it last week, and feeling good about the setup.”
For McIlroy, feeling good might be the key to his Open chances. He’s won four major championships — including the 2011 Open at Congressional — but the last one was five years ago at the PGA Championship.
By this time, most in golf figured he’d have more major titles. But he’s been wild at crucial times off the tee, and has struggled mightily with his putter.
The putting wasn’t a problem in Canada, where he shot 22 under in an eye-opening win. The putter might have been, had he not gotten it back after jokingly giving it to the tournament director in exchange for the Raptors jersey.
“He gave me a Raptors jersey, and I gave him my putter and thought he was going to give it to Harry (Diamond, his caddie) up at the scoring area or whatever,” McIlroy said. “And I saw Harry. He goes, Where’s your putter? And I said, I better go find it. So, no, I definitely didn’t give it away. I know I’ve done some stupid things in the past, but that would have been right up there.”
If McIlroy’s game is peaking for this week, there’s another Open he probably wants to win even more this year. The British Open is in Northern Ireland, his birthplace, for the first time in nearly 70 years and he and fellow countryman Graeme McDowell are eager to put on a display at Royal Portrush.
McDowell won the U.S. Open the last time it was played at Pebble Beach in 2011, and is starting to play well again after a long, dry spell. He’s been watching as McIlroy has been rounding into shape, too.
“He looks like he’s mentally in a very good place and a runaway win shouldn’t have done his confidence any harm,” McDowell said. “I’m sure he comes in this week looking to add his name to the U.S. Open trophy again. He’s a special player.”
Of that, there’s little doubt, though just how special McIlroy is won’t be evaluated until he’s added more years to his career. He’s still a baby in golf years at the age of 30, and no one has questioned his talent since he shot a 61 at Royal Portrush at the age of 16.
It’s the mental side that has been hardest to conquer, something McIlroy believes he is on his way to solving. He wants to swing freely without thinking technically, and did just that in the final round 61 in Canada.
“I think I proved to myself that I can go out and I can do that,” he said. “And hopefully I can do that more often.”