PINEHURST, N.C.—He was wearing green and, on the practice tee, wearing out what seemed like a gross of golf balls. Oh it was hot, 93 degrees, but Rory McIlroy, after what he’s been through of late, the lows, the highs, wasn’t going be deterred by the weather.
Or anything else.
The infamous breakup with his fiancée, the tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki? The comeback victory in the European Tour PGA Championship virtually hours later? Getting beat by a stroke by an Augusta National member who played with him the third round of the Masters?
They were not to be glanced at in the rearview mirror.
This is U.S. Open week, the week of America’s golfing championship.
McIlroy, as the others at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, where the 114th men’s Open begins Thursday on the gem of the No. 2 course, is focused on what’s ahead, not what’s behind.
If at the moment, what’s behind, including McIlroy’s victory in the 2011 Open at Congressional, remains more compelling.
At 25 he has done so much, made as much history as anyone could imagine, had his triumphs and his defeats, still a kid in some ways, a mature man in many others.
His social life trumped everything else for a while as a world with a tabloid mentality watched Rory and Woz while they paraded along until, wham, as love affairs sometimes do, it went whap.
Why not? He’s a two-time major champion, the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island joining the victory at Congressional, when—and this at age 22—he won that 2011 Open by eight strokes and set a scoring record of 16 under. Not even Tiger Woods matched that.
McIlroy loves a laugh as much as a birdie. He recently agreed to hit a shot out of a large mound of cabbage for an ESPN Sports Science project. He played the ball as if it were in a bunker, except he leaned over, scooped up some of the slaw and took a taste before blasting out.
The Open often restricts long hitters—make that long, wild hitters, which most long hitters are. McIlroy occasionally falls into that category, as happened in 2011, when leading the Masters on Day 3 he drove his tee shot on 10 almost into the bungalows far left of the fairway and trees.
But even if Pinehurst No. 2 has been restored to its original dimensions, the rough having been dug up, McIlroy said after a visit last week he would be conservative in the Open. The 620-yard, par-5 10th would seem to lure a long hitter into going for the green in two. McIlroy insisted he wouldn’t be lured.
"I’m playing that 3-iron, 6-iron, wedge,” he told Golfweek. “Yeah, I’ll be hitting iron off the tee. You know I’d rather have a wedge from the middle of the fairway than a 3-wood from, wherever. That would probably lead to a chip from a tight angle.
“It’s just not a birdie hole. It’s a three-shot hole, so 3-iron, 6-iron, wedge.”
No matter what clubs he uses, McIlroy is confident things will work out better for him than the start of 2013.
At the end of the previous year, McIlroy gleefully was moving along with his life and his golf. And his finances. He reportedly signed a five-year, $100 million contract to switch to Nike clubs. For whatever reason, an inability to adapt to the clubs, spending time with Wozniacki when he should have been spending time on the range or none of the above, McIlroy struggled for much of 2013.
Finally, he won the Australian Open in December, by a shot over Scott, and the doubts were halted, at least for a while.
He and Wozniacki, whose tennis also had declined—as Rory, she also had been No. 1 in the rankings—were engaged on New Year’s Day. We know how that ended. The split came in May.
Before the week was out, McIlroy was playing the Euro PGA. Seven shots behind entering the final round, he rallied to win, and when Scott, who had ascended to first in the rankings, won in Texas the same day, golf didn’t miss Mr. Woods quite as much as it did hours before.
"I guess when I got inside the ropes this week,” McIlroy said in the post-tournament interview room, “it was a little bit of a release, and I was on my own and doing what I do best, which is playing golf, and that sort of gave me four or five hours of serenity or sanctuary or whatever you want to call it.
"I was just focusing on the job at hand which was to play golf and get the ball in the hole in the lowest number of shots possible ... It's obviously been a week of very mixed emotions, but I'm sitting here looking at this trophy going, `How the hell, how did it happen this week?' But it did."
If it happens this week, there won’t be any questions, from McIlroy or anybody else. He will have answered any and all. Not even Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson were able to win two U.S. Opens.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. You can follow him on Twitter @artspander.