"Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice."
Rory McIlroy played through one of the more scrutinized first rounds of golf a pro can play on the first day of the U.S. Open.
Kyle Porter, a golf writer for CBS Sports, wrote of McIlroy, “A pretty ho-hum 71 from Rory McIlroy on Thursday. Three bogeys, two birdies, and right where he wanted to be after the first run around the track.
"He's leading the PGA Tour in Round 1 scoring but watch out in Round 2—he's 192nd. Tomorrow will be huge.”
Porter was likely surprised McIlroy couldn't get a big enough jump on the field on Day 1. That hasn't always worked out in McIlroy's favor. Perhaps a grind-it-out, par-heavy round is just what McIlroy needed to get his sea legs.
Think about this for a minute: McIlroy shot a one-over 71 and it was dubbed "ho-hum." Maybe if this was the Honda Classic, but the U.S. Open? A 71 is a nice way to stay alive and get to the weekend. As it stands, McIlroy is now six strokes back of the resurgent Martin Kaymer. Of those ahead of McIlroy, only one of them has won a U.S. Open: fellow countryman Graeme McDowell.
McIlroy started his round with five straight pars, a solid, conservative approach to a difficult course. Bogies on six and seven vaulted him to a two-over. Instead of melting down, he parred the eighth and birdied the ninth to get to one over, shooting 36 at the turn.
He then parred six straight holes, bogied the 16th, parred the 17th and birdied out for the 71. That birdie on the 18th hole is a positive image for when the head hits the pillow tonight.
McIlroy wanted to be under par, just like anyone. He didn’t do anything that took him out of contention on Day 1 (but that three-putt on 16 could needle at him). That was the plan heading into Pinehurst. McIlroy told The Telegraph's James Corrigan:
I’m going to adopt a really conservative game plan. Middle of the green, middle of the green, middle of the green. I think if your iron game is in really good shape, then you can hit the middle of those greens. Even if it’s a 30- or 40-foot birdie putt every time, you’re going to do really well. If you short-side yourself, you bring a really large number into play.
McIlroy even went to the Dagobah System in search of golf’s Yoda: the Golden Bear, four-time U.S. Open winner Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus was left scratching his head when McIlroy opened the Memorial Tournament with a 63 and then muffed a 78 the following day. Per ESPN.com's Bob Harig, McIlroy said:
He said to me, 'How the hell can you shoot 63 and then 78?' I said, 'I wasn't meaning to, Jack. I'm not trying to.' He said to me he was never afraid to change things up in the middle of a round if it wasn't going well, if he felt like he wasn't swinging well. He'd make a swing change right then and there.
Nicklaus grinded out many of his major wins. He admitted to McIlroy that they weren’t all pretty, per Brian Wacker of PGATour.com. Quite the opposite, he was just less ugly than everyone else over those weekends. McIlroy continued:
The mental strength to be able to do that and trust what you're doing. But I had a great conversation with Jack and I feel very honored that I'm able to call him up for advice, if I need to. And he's been very generous with his time. Some of the things he said to me, I'm really thinking about going into this week. He was a great U.S. Open player and hopefully some of those little nuggets of wisdom that he passed on to me might help this week.
ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski noted of 2014 McIlroy:
But did you know that he has been churning out top-10 finishes this year like Ben & Jerry's churns out Cherry Garcia? He already has 10 on the PGA and European Tours combined.
McIlroy is more buff, more focused and, maybe in an unexpected way, more humbled by the events and struggles of the past year or so. Or as he said Wednesday: "[I'm] really finding my love for the game again. I'm really enjoying what I'm doing."
Like many athletes before him, McIlroy sought the advice of a prior champion and was rewarded with a certain steadiness, a steadiness he showed by closing out Round 1 with a birdie on 18.
Maybe it wasn’t as electric a first round as McIlroy wanted. Maybe if he didn’t three-putt 16, he’d be at even par, ready to creep unassumingly toward the front.
The slow first round is just fine. An even keel keeps the boat steady in the deep waters of the U.S. Open.
Slow and steady wins the majors.
Twitter up: @BrendanOMeara.