HOYLAKLE, England—After Rory McIlory won his 2nd major championship at Kiawah at the PGA Championship in 2012—closing with an airtight final round 66 and comfortable eight-shot win—the unified impression was that the gifted Northern Irishman was now on his way: the heir apparent to Tiger Woods.
Now, nearly two years since that convincing triumph the 25-year-old appears to be in top shelf form—he’s the halfway leader by four shots at The Open at Royal Liverpool over super talented, but major-less American Dustin Johnson having posted twin six-under-par 66’s after the first two rounds of play.
How good has Rory been? Try just one bogey over 36 holes and finishing his 2nd round in the strongest of manners—three of four birdies to close out the day’s play.
Given McIlroy’s record performance in winning his first major at Comgressional in 2011—the 2nd win at the PGA mirrored what Woods had done at a similar age—pulverizing fields with no-mercy play.
After the Kiawah win McIlroy opted to change equipment companies, from Titleist to Nike. Star players have changed equipment companies over the years and the results have been mixed. For McIlroy it was a total immersion in the Nike equipment arsenal and his play reflected a man in search of his bearings.
2013 was a clear step in reverse—neither wins at any of the major championships nor victories on the PGA Tour. The highlight early in the year was actually a personal embarrassment as McIlroy withdrew from the Honda Classic claiming injury when poor play was the culprit. Before the year concluded McIlroy did gain some comfort winning The Emirates Australian Open by one shot over Adam Scott.
Complicating matters was a personal relationship with star tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. An engagement to marry was abruptly called off and it appeared to many McIlroy’s focus on the game was drifting.
Like Woods, McIlroy possesses the wherewithal to shoot very low scores in the most telling of events. The issue for him was stringing together the rounds—most notably in the 2nd round. Just one week prior in the Scottish Open, McIlroy opened with a course record 64, then followed with a depressing 78. He did rally over the final two rounds but the damage from round two derailed any contention possibilities. McIroy had done this in major settings as well, opening The 2010 Open Championship at The Old Course at St. Andrews with a 63—the lowest first round score in Open annals and tying the course record—then failing to break 80 in the 2nd round.
Going into The Open’s 2nd round at Royal Liverpool the pressure on Mclroy to show a consistency from one round to the next was apparent. This time around he did not back-off.
“Going out, I just wanted to stick to my game plan, stick to doing what I do well, which is to take advantage of the par 5s, maybe take advantage of some of the holes that are downwind,” said McIlroy in his post-round press conference. “That was all I was thinking about and I went out there and executed the game plan perfectly. All I need is two more of those again.” A McIlroy win would be his 3rd different major, leaving only The Masters for him to join the most elite of clubs—golfers having won all of the game’s major events in a career.
For the 30-year-old Dustin Johnson, the pursuit of a major has been an on-going goal. In 2011 he stayed in the hunt at The Open at Royal St. George’s until hitting his second shot on the par-5 14th out-of-bounds in the final round. Talent has never been his issue—closing the deal in one of the game’s premier events has been thus far. Last round failures at both the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and PGA Championship have dogged him as well.
McIlroy and Johnson will have plenty of face time for Saturday’s 3rd round as they will be paired. They will also need to likely combat the elements as weather, which has been especially balmy, may turn foul in the 3rd round with heavy rain showers at times and increasing winds. In short, Open weather will make its presence and only the most determined and surest of mind and body will succeed.
Although much of the early talk centered on the return to major championship play of Tiger Woods—he barely made the cut with a final birdie on the home hole—the focus now goes to the next generation of golf stars. Saturday’s 3rd round promises to show much. We shall soon see.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.