Over the years, more curses have been ascribed to Rory McIlroy than to a biblical serpent. How about the ‘Curse of Augusta’? This piece of golfing witchcraft apparently explains why he has spent four years trying and failing to complete the Grand Slam there. Or perhaps the ‘Curse of Nike’? Amateur mystics cited this as a definitive explanation for his travails in 2013, when he neglected to win a major despite signing a £15 million-a-year contract to wear the swoosh. In the realm of Rory-ology, there is even, would you believe, the ‘Curse of Fridays’, a strange hex dictating his habit of starting majors strongly and then dissolving in a heap come the second round.
There are plenty of precedents on McIlroy’s CV for these ‘freaky Fridays’. At the St Andrews Open of 2010, he equalled the course record of 63 on Thursday, only to follow it up with an 80, albeit with a howling gale as mitigation. By the time he arrived at Hoylake four years later, even he accepted that the glaring disparity between his average first- and second-round scores was a problem. In his 2014 season leading up to Royal Liverpool, he was a combined 50 under par for his opening rounds, but nine over for his Fridays. So what did he do next? He brushed the statistical burden aside, posting a second straight 66 en route to the Claret Jug.
A similar symmetry was at work yesterday at a rain-lashed Carnoustie. For all the fears that he might despoil his first day’s progress amid the car-wash conditions of Angus in July, he strode jauntily into the Open weekend with back-to-back 69s. History, we can safely say, is on his side: at each of the three previous majors where McIlroy has started with two rounds in the 60s, he has gone on to win.
If McIlroy has a mantra for this championship, it is that he wants to leave town tomorrow night with no regrets. His miserable experience at this year’s Masters Sunday taught him much. All the hoopla around him being in the final pairing with Patrick Reed just vanished into the ether, his golden chance to become only the sixth man to win all four majors sabotaged by his own conservatism. McIlroy retreated into himself for a few weeks, but he has re-emerged here with a fresh philosophy. “If I had been aggressive that day at Augusta, committing to every shot, I would have been a lot happier,” he said. “This time, even if I don’t play my best golf or I don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging.”
Not that it was all eyeballs-out belligerence here. As he awoke to drenching rain, McIlroy recognised that his fairweather approach of unleashing the driver on every hole bar the par-threes would not work. The fairways lacked the same fire they had in the summer sunshine, while the dampness reduced the spin-rate off the clubface. As such, he kept his bolder impulses in check, reaching for the big stick just six times all round. The approach worked a treat: he did not drop a shot in his first 11 holes, and he came through the punishing test of Carnoustie’s closing stretch without a blemish. “On a day like that, you need patience,” he reflected. “You just need to scramble and keep yourself in it.”
Open 2018 longshots
The irony is that McIlroy used to loathe playing in this type of weather. When the glowering skies did their worst at Royal St George’s in 2011, consigning him to weekend rounds of 74 and 73, he lamented that it was “not my sort of golf”. He would far prefer, he claimed, to be playing in 80 degrees with the sun on his back. It was not a remark that one expected of a young player inured to the drizzle of Northern Ireland. Thankfully, McIlroy has outgrown such petulance and learned how to adapt to the capriciousness of the links test. “I’m just better at it,” he smiled. “I still wouldn’t say I like it. I would much rather not be sitting here in damp clothes.”
Normally, players in his position spout pre-programmed platitudes about not looking beyond the next round. But as he made clear to critic Butch Harmon earlier in the week, McIlroy is not a robot, and he is quite content as a four-time major winner to talk up his prospects. Comforted by a benign forecast for the weekend, he said: “I feel as if there are low rounds in me. If I can get on a run over the next couple of days, I definitely see something like a 66 or a 65. I think I’m capable of that.”
For the moment, expectations should be tempered. McIlroy was tied for sixth heading into the last 36 holes at Royal Birkdale last year, but could not quite harness the momentum for victory. But there were glimpses yesterday of a champion-in-waiting: at the tricky little 13th, he purged all memory of a dropped shot on the previous hole with a two. At the 14th, he hoiked his tee-shot left into a fairway bunker, but concocted a superb escape to set up a nerveless up-and-down for birdie. For a few heady moments, he held a share of the lead. He fully intends to return there, having resolved that this is one stage on which he will not die wondering.