CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — On a dreich morning on the now sodden, re-hydrating Carnoustie, Rory McIlroy remained patient in his second round. He reined himself back a little from the free-hitting, gung-ho approach he took to the sun-drenched first round. He left with few regrets.
His 2-under 69 saw him finish 4 under after two rounds, a score just nudging those at the top of the leaderboard, reminding them he is there, on their tail as we get into the business end at The Open. As he stood on the 18th green after finishing, he allowed himself a brief smile and a handshake with his caddy which said ‘job done’, thoughts now switching to Saturday.
Over the past two days we have seen McIlroy retain control, embracing the same adventurous attitude which underpinned his early career while bringing in the hours and hours of experience to navigate the course pockmarked with testing bunkers.
The young McIlroy he has spoken of this week — the fuzzy-haired, ebullient, expression-filled youngster who smashed his way around this course in 2007 as an 18-year-old amateur — has been a bit of a muse for him. He has tried to tap into that free-hitting mindset, one where pins were attacked with gusto, rather than the mist of caution which drowned him in the first two majors this year. Looking back now, he feels he was worrying too much about the end result at the Masters and U.S. Open, rather than the fun he could have had getting there.
“One of my main thoughts this week is just to let it go,” McIlroy said. “Just go out there and give it your all, and I’d rather fail by trying 100 percent than by sort of holding back and maybe not giving myself the opportunity to do well.”
On Thursday, his tee shots barely troubled the fairway, but it was part of the tactic he adopted of hitting long, rather than using irons. This was going on the offensive, driving around the course with “Nasty” written on the bottom of his shoes, every step stamping away the notorious difficulty of the place coined “Car-Nasty.” Friday was different, using irons more from the tees but this was rational golf, rather than conservative.
“It was definitely a day where, don’t shoot yourself out of the tournament instead of trying to press on and build a lead or get an advantage,” McIlroy said.
But despite holding back the temptation to hit long, he ended with the same score, a promising consistency emerging with two days to go.
These two days play into McIlroy’s increasing interest in the psychological side of the game. He has devoured “The Chimp Paradox,” a book offering a mind-management model based around controlling one’s inner struggle, and “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” anchored on methods to regain self-control. These two rounds exhibit examples — McIlroy embracing his youthful instincts to attack, while limiting that daredevilry to ensure it does not boil over into a golfing meltdown.
“I just kept level-headed when I needed to, and you know what, I didn’t let the conditions get to me,” he said.
McIlroy also did his utmost to stay in the moment, parking any negative thoughts over whether he would have preferred to be on the other side of the draw, or about what is to come, and he just “got on with it”.
“I haven’t taken on too much,” McIlroy said. “It has felt — I don’t want to say easy, but it’s felt comfortable.”
Only once did that veneer of serene, thousand-mile stare calmness slip. It came when next year’s Open at Royal Portrush was mentioned, offering McIlroy the chance to play back at home in Northern Ireland. The last time The Open was played there was in 1952, and he never thought the opportunity would arise to play in a major in front of those who played huge roles in the embryonic stages of his career. Married with those thoughts are the dreams of the young McIlroy; as he spoke the smile was laced with nostalgia.
“Obviously, I’d love to be able to hand the Claret Jug back to Martin Slumbers on the 1st tee of Portrush next year…” And then it was back to the present with a jolt. “I have to focus on these two days first,” as he went on to assess the “slog” of the final three holes here at Carnoustie.
He knows better than most what pressure can do in the final throes of majors, and while he is content with his 4-under score, his excitable, inner-chimp is being controlled.
“There’s still a long way to go, depending on what happens [Saturday] going into Sunday,” McIlroy said, probably for the hundredth time across his career. “Then over 36 holes, a lot of stuff and a lot of things can happen.”
But he is now in the best mindset to control as much as golf allows him to. If the sun returns, so will the driver and so will that young McIlroy.
“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, and I’m going to go down giving it my best,” he said.