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Rory McIlroy balancing carefree approach, sense of urgency in major search

HOYLAKE, England – The headliner at yet another major, Rory McIlroy dove headlong into his preparation instead of stopping for a formal, pre-tournament news conference at The Open.

There were likely reasons big and small that went into that decision. McIlroy hasn’t been back to Royal Liverpool since he won here in 2014 and wanted to refamiliarize him with the old links. He also won Sunday at the Scottish Open and answered reporters’ questions just two days earlier. But another aspect, undoubtedly, was his preference to stay in a sound state of mind. He is nearly nine years removed from his last major championship victory, and there would seem – because of his current form, his course history and his Open record – no better time to end that drought.

He knows it. We know it. And he knows that we know it.

“I mean, the results would suggest so,” McIlroy said, when asked whether he’s as close as he’s ever been to snapping that streak, “but I’ve just got to go out and play golf. Since 2014, I’ve won everything else there is to win in the game apart from a major championship, so I know I’m good.”

As good as anyone in the world, again.

Full-field scores from the 151st Open Championship

Of the 10 top-5 major finishes that he has racked up since the 2014 PGA, McIlroy has been a runner-up on three occasions – including last month at the U.S. Open, where he finished a stroke shy of Wyndham Clark. McIlroy’s 271 total was the lowest 72-hole score by a non-winner in Open history.

“To be honest, I was sure he was going to win that U.S. Open this year,” Shane Lowry said after his practice round Tuesday with McIlroy, “and I was happy to hear he didn’t take it too hard. He was pretty happy with the way he played and what he did.”

Indeed, McIlroy told Golf Channel on Tuesday that he’s in a wildly different place mentally than just two months ago, at the PGA Championship, where he admitted a few swing faults (he still tied for eighth) and expressed fatigue at being at the forefront of the PGA Tour-LIV war. His attitude is more positive now, after some off-the-course reflection, and he’s made a few conscious choices to return the focus to his performance. He has distanced himself from the ongoing drama. He has cut down on some of his media availabilities, as evidenced here at Hoylake. And he has adopted a more carefree mentality between the ropes.

Jon Rahm was more forgiving when speaking to reporters Tuesday at Royal Liverpool, saying Jay Monahan is a “really good man.”

“I think it’s easier when you feel like you’re in control of everything, you’re not searching for things,” McIlroy said. “When everything feels in a good spot, I think then you can be a little more free and it flows a little more.

“It’s the really the chicken or the egg of what comes first, but when you get that technical stuff right and in control of that, it just makes everything else easier.”

Once again, the world No. 2 appeared in good spirits and in fine form during a 14-hole practice round with Lowry, the 2019 Open champion. Perhaps no tournament has underscored the pressure that McIlroy feels at these heightened events quite like Royal Portrush, in his native Northern Ireland, where he sniped his opening tee shot out of bounds and shot 79. He rallied to nearly make the cut, then tearfully opened up about his failures.

More disappointment has followed in the game’s biggest events, some more shocking than others. At this year’s Masters, McIlroy said that he was “never so sure” that he’d play well, only to shoot 77 in the second round and miss the cut for the first time in his Masters career. After a rusty return start in Charlotte, he has ripped off six consecutive top-10s, including the win last week in Scotland, to ratchet up expectations for the final major championship of the year.

“You only get four chances a year, and the top of the world golf is so strong at the moment,” Lowry said. “You don’t have a God-given right to go out there and win and do well. It’s a battle day-in and day-out for professional golfers, and that’s what it is.

“Rory’s been consistently one of the best players in the world for the last 12 or 14 years. Since he won here in 2014, he’s done everything in the game there is to do twice, apart from winning a major, and he’s come so close.”

The most replayed clip this week has been his triumphant walk up the final fairway in 2014, his third major championship secured, the next to follow a month later. He was 25 and at the top of the world.

Some of those winning feelings returned when he arrived on property Monday, McIlroy said, but “maybe not as much as you would think.” He didn’t watch any highlights of that past Open triumph here – the course has undergone some significant alterations, including a brand-new, par-3 17th – but as he strolled around the links he recalled how well he stuck to his game plan that week.

“I think I really got my thinking hat on that week and played a lot of strategically good golf,” he said. “It’s definitely a game of chess out here, laying back on some bunkers and taking it on with some others. You’re just really trying to commit to the game plan, whatever that game plan is that you choose.”

McIlroy’s game plan worked to perfection last year at St. Andrews, at least until the final round, when he hit all 18 greens in regulation, none particularly close to the hole, and got lapped by Cam Smith for the claret jug.

The letdown lingered for weeks. He knew he didn’t meet the moment. He knew it was his last crack at the Old Course in his competitive prime. And he knew that he had to wait nine long months for another chance at major No. 5.

With his focused approach early this week, there’s clearly a similar sense of urgency here at Hoylake.

“He’s obviously a tremendously talented player, and he’s put himself in position and it hasn’t happened yet,” Jon Rahm said. “I can’t say what goes through his mind, obviously. Undoubtedly he wants it. He wants to get to five [majors]. Not many players have gotten to five. He still has a lot of years to play ahead of him, so I know he wants to keep adding to that tally. I’m hoping he does it. I’m pretty sure he will get to that No. 5 at some point.”