McIlroy focusing on disciplined approach as Oakmont looms
OAKMONT, PA. >> Rory McIlroy winced ever so slightly as he uttered the words, well aware of their connotations even though he intended no disrespect to some of the greatest moments of his career.
Four major championships, all with what look like borderline typo scores following round after round of predatory — and in some cases near flawless — golf. And all four, by the 27-year-old's own admission, under relatively benign circumstances compared with what awaits during this week's U.S. Open at burly Oakmont.
"The majors I have won have been soft and under par and more suited my style of game," McIlroy said Tuesday.
Oakmont, not so much.
Then again, the iconic course tucked in the western Pennsylvania hills isn't designed to litter players' scorecards with a Sharpie's worth of red numbers. If it's possible to argue that there's a hole on the resume of a player who rose to No. 1 in the world before his 24th birthday, it may be that for all of McIlroy's gaudy talent, he has yet to triumph in a major when grit — and not glitz — is required.
It's a notion the 2011 U.S. Open champion is well aware of, one he'll try to put to rest this weekend.
"To be able to win on a course like this with the conditions the way they are, it would probably be my, I don't know, maybe my biggest accomplishment in the game," he said. "But definitely would make me feel like a more complete player, I guess."
A sobering assessment from a player who occasionally turns major venues into nicely appointed pitch and putts. He overwhelmed soggy and defenseless Congressional five years ago with a U.S. Open record of 16-under 268. He did the same in PGA Championship victories at Kiawah Island in 2012 (13 under) and Valhalla in 2014 (16 under), along with his 17-under 271 while going wire-to-wire at the 2014 British Open.
The only chance 271 comes into play at Oakmont is if they just stop counting strokes over the final holes on Sunday. There's the lavish rough ready to swallow any wayward shot or dropped smartphone. There are the greens that distort and distract reality, golf's version of a funhouse mirror.
Most importantly, there's the discipline required to know when — and when not to — take chances. It's a distinction McIlroy believes he's becoming better at making as his game matures.
"I think with experience, you learn what a good score is on that particular day or, if you're not playing so well, how to just grind it out and make pars and try to get it in the clubhouse at a respectable score," he said. "And I feel like just over the years I've learned how to do that a little bit better."
So expect fewer drivers and more two-irons off the tee and a pragmatic approach from the fairway. Less swagger and more smarts. There may be long stretches where he avoids shooting at the pin altogether, opting for the comfort of a 30-footer uphill than an eight-footer down the slope.
"There's just going to be times where I'm going to have to rein it back in a little bit," he said.
Or maybe a not so little bit.
When he's on, as he was while capturing the Irish Open on home soil last month for his first victory of the season, McIlroy can play some of the prettiest golf on the planet. He thinks Oakmont does offer opportunities for artistry, if only because every shot is so packed with a seemingly endless string of decision-making that near perfection is required just to survive.
"You can't slap it around here and expect to (win) — you have to hit good shots," he said. "You have to flight your iron shots. You have to still hit high-quality golf shots to give yourself a chance. So I don't think that changes at all."
What will need to change for McIlroy is his ability to deal with the adversity that will almost certainly arise. He struggled to find any rhythm at Chambers Bay last year before briefly catching fire on Sunday. He reeled off six birdies in the first 13 holes of the final round to get within eyesight of the lead before faltering. Had he played better earlier in the week, maybe he would have been able to track down eventual champion Jordan Spieth. McIlroy faulted his own issues with the dirt-pocked putting surfaces at the venue as part of the problem.
That won't be a concern at Oakmont's seemingly endless sea of green, where the biggest challenge will be what it always seems to be when the tournament visits: knowing which fights to pick.
"I feel like I've got a good game plan to know when to be aggressive, when not to," he said. "Hopefully, I can just stick to that, and it works out."
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