First-time fatherhood has suited Rory McIlroy. He has doted on daughter Poppy in the two weeks since she was born, and he felt the pang of having to leave her and wife Erica to prepare for this week's U.S. Open.
He's also embraced the sleepless nights, even diaper duty.
"I've got my hands dirty, put it that way," McIlroy said Tuesday at Winged Foot.
McIlroy is hoping to do the same this week during what figures to be a brutal test.
Still one of golf's best, the 31-year-old is attempting to end a lengthy — at least for him — drought at the majors.
Since winning the 2014 PGA Championship for his fourth career major, McIlroy has gone 0 for 20 in golf's four most important tournaments. He's come close with 10 top-10 finishes since winning at Valhalla.
In that span, Brooks Koepka has won four majors, Jordan Spieth three. Danny Willett became a first-time major champion at the Masters; Tiger Woods returned from a series of back surgeries to win his 15th major at Augusta last year; and 23-year-old Collin Morikawa won this year's PGA Championship in his second career major start.
It's not like McIlroy's skills have faded.
He was the FedEx Cup champion in 2016 and 2019, has 12 victories over the past six years — nine on the PGA Tour — and arrived at Winged Foot ranked No. 4 in the world.
The majors have proved elusive, in large part due to slow starts.
McIlroy grinded out an even-par 70 at TPC Harding Park in last month's PGA Championship before fading to 33rd, but too often he has stumbled out of the gate and spent the rest of the week chasing. One glaring example was the British Open at Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland last year, when he hit his opening tee shot out of bounds and made a quadruple-bogey 8.
“I probably just put a little too much pressure on myself going into tournaments,” he said. “And from there, shooting a bad score on the first day and putting yourself under even more pressure from there to just make it to the weekend, and then to try to play catch-up. I think that’s been the big thing.”
McIlroy followed his second FedEx Cup title in 2019 with seven straight top-10 finishes early in 2020 and moved back to No. 1 in the world for 10 straight weeks. But since the PGA Tour resumed from its stoppage during the coronavirus pandemic, McIlroy has mostly been a nonfactor. In nine events, his only top 10 finish was at the Tour Championship, which has a 30-man field.
The key this week, as it usually is with McIlroy, will be his driver.
At the top of his game, McIlroy is one of the world's best off the tee, hitting towering shots that sail past his playing partners' into the middle of fairways. When the driver goes awry, McIlroy finds himself hacking out from difficult positions, often scrambling for pars instead of setting up birdies.
Winged Foot has proven to be one of the toughest courses in major championship history — the 1974 U.S. Open was called the “Massacre at Winged Foot” — and the rough this week is thick and juicy.
McIlroy was fourth on tour in driving distance in the recently concluded season, averaging 314 yards, but was 155th in accuracy, hitting 56% of the fairways.
The good news this week is Winged Foot provides some opportunities to run low shots from the rough up to the greens, and McIlroy has enough power to leave driver in the bag on tighter holes.
“Every course we go to nowadays, it’s the way that the modern game has went; the longer you can hit it, the more advantage you have,” McIlroy said. “I’d still take hitting fairways over hitting it 350 in the rough here.”
Wherever his tee shots end up or whatever type of start he gets off to, McIlroy may have a better attitude about it.
Fatherhood has way of putting things into perspective.
“I’ve grown up my whole life dreaming of winning these tournaments and that’s not going to change," he said “But if it doesn’t quite happen, I can live with that and go home and be very happy and leave what’s happened at the golf course at the golf course.”
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