Reversal of first-round misfortune: Rory McIlroy in contention at U.S. Open

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TORREY PINES, Calif. — Search for “Rory McIlroy, first round, major” and … you know what, don’t worry about it. I’ve already done it and here’s what you get:

“Rory shoots worst-ever first-round.”

“Rory continues his troubling trend.”

“The ridiculous stat behind Rory’s major-less streak.”

About that stat … it is ridiculous.

Since winning the 2014 PGA Championship, his fourth major in four years, McIlroy is, in first rounds of major championships, 35-over par. Conversely, in rounds 2-4, he’s 60 under.

Not surprisingly, he hasn’t won a major in that stretch, his “next big thing” status having long since been passed along to, well, a bunch of guys. In fact, he really hasn't been a major threat at any major, save for a brief moment at the 2018 Open Championship.

So it’s understandable why he swirled his fist in the air after rolling in a mid-range birdie putt on 18 Thursday at the U.S. Open, putting him at 1-under for the tournament and just three back of leader Russell Henley.

He wasn’t out of contention after just 18 holes.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 17: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland putts on the fourth green during the first round of the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course (South Course) on June 17, 2021 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 17: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland putts on the fourth green during the first round of the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course (South Course) on June 17, 2021 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The way he explains it, the bad first rounds allow him to loosen up and play freer the rest of the way — swing loose, swing free, and if you’re Rory McIlroy, one of the best swingers of a golf club in the world, then the result will be pretty good.

But why hasn’t he been able to do that during Round 1, at least not consistently?

“Probably just putting a little too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being a little tentative,” he said earlier in the week. “I think that sort of sums it up.”

There were some signs of that still in the middle of Round 1. After getting to 2-under on the front, McIlroy scuffled on the back, carding three bogies that threatened to spoil an otherwise very good round.

The birdie at 18 as darkness swept over Torrey Pines saved him a bit.

"The birdie is awesome. I mean, that putt was pretty, I was sort of like, I think it's straight, I'll hit it straight and we'll see," he said. "But, yeah, it was nice to get in, get an extra hour of sleep tonight and it was a bonus to birdie in as well."

The question now is, what does he do over the next three rounds after a Round 1 that didn’t put him in an immediate hole? Does he swing loose and free, or does he tighten up as he did on the back?

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