By staying in cocoon, Rory McIlroy hopes to blossom into major champ once again

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Over and over, we’ve tried to push Rory McIlroy to go there.

To the end result. To the prize, not the process. To the place sports psychologists dread.

And he won’t have any of it.

“The more people bring up the result,” McIlroy said Saturday night, “the more I’m just going to harp on about the process and sticking to my game plan, because that’s the only thing I can do. I’ve done that well for the last three days. It’s put me in this position. I just need to do it for one more day.”

What’s unavoidable for McIlroy is that he’s tied for the lead with Viktor Hovland at this 150th Open. We know what a win here would mean for McIlroy’s legacy. And he, too, knows what it’d mean.

And yet, over and over, he did his best to bat away questions that tried to get him to look ahead to the 72nd green, Sunday night. It likely wasn’t a coincidence that McIlroy’s team successfully negotiated the terms of his post-round interview, keeping him in the informal mixed zone for questioning instead of the formal press conference in the interview room.

It keeps things normal. On schedule.

It's more reactionary, less introspective.

A reporter asked McIlroy if, eight years removed from his last major title, he’s still able to summon the same winning feelings.

He didn’t flinch. “I’m playing a golf tournament and I’ve got myself in a great position after three days,” he said. “I’ve finished off enough golf tournaments in my time to feel like I know what to do tomorrow.”

McGinley: Rory McIlroy is primed to lift claret jug Sunday at St. Andrews

With McIlroy and Hovland now four shots clear, this Open, in all likelihood, has been winnowed to a two-man race. And though Hovland is an exceptional talent and a likable lad, he doesn’t yet have the global popularity of McIlroy. On what is expected to be another warm, calm afternoon, men and women, young and old, will be trying to will McIlroy to victory at the home of golf. That partisan support was already on display Saturday at St. Andrews; each time Hovland missed a green or a putt and McIlroy readied to play, the crowd, sensing a potential momentum shift, would grow increasingly vocal in their support for their favorite son.

“The support that I’ve gotten this week has been absolutely incredible,” McIlroy said. “I appreciate it, and I feel it out there. But at the same time, I’m trying my hardest just to stay in my own little world because that’s the best way for me to get the best out of myself. I try to acknowledge as much as I can, but I’m just trying to stay in my process, stay in my own little bubble, and I just have to do that for one more day.”

Somewhere, Dr. Bob Rotella must be smiling.

After all, McIlroy’s process is providing him patience.

That’s why he didn’t get rattled when Hovland dropped a couple of bombs early and ripped off four birdies in a row to surge into the lead. McIlroy had squandered a few good birdie looks on the opening stretch, but he also knew two par 5s and drivable par 4s were upcoming. Eventually, he’d get his, and he did – signing for a matching 66, which included a hole-out eagle from the greenside bunker at No. 10.

Get loud! McIlroy holes bunker shot for eagle, share of Open lead

His process is leading to acceptance.

The R&A, trying to keep a defenseless Old Course from getting overwhelmed by modern equipment, has tucked pins and forced players, in some cases, to accept 30-footers as solid shots. It feels like 63s are everywhere, but not with this setup. When he’s on, typically, McIlroy is a freewheeling savant, capable of birdie binges that leave the field in his wake. But through 54 holes on the “fiddly” links, he’s employed a different strategy, taking his chances only as they’re presented.

“I’m trying to play with discipline,” he said. “I’m trying to play the percentages.”

And his process is giving him confidence.

It’s been eight long years since McIlroy won a major, but during that span he hasn’t exactly fallen off. He’s reached world No. 1, claimed FedExCup titles and won more than a dozen times worldwide, including The Players. The Tour leader this season in strokes gained, he is, quite literally, the best player statistically on Tour – and playing some of the best golf of his career.

“I know I’ve got the game,” he said, “and that’s all I need.”

During his dominant early run, McIlroy never downplayed the weighty stakes or spoke publicly of his “process.” It all came easily, naturally, to him.

On Saturday night, he recalled how he kicked away the 2011 Masters. “I got out of my process; I got out of what I did for three days, and it was a tough lesson,” he said. “It was a really tough pill to swallow.” Two months later, he romped to an eight-shot victory at the U.S. Open, and his legend only grew from there. “I called it my little cocoon – just trying to stay in my little cocoon for the whole week,” he said. Two more major titles followed in short order, and then … nothing.

So, over the past few years, has he veered away from that process-oriented approach?

“No,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s just the golf that I’ve played within the cocoon the last year has been a bit better.”

Full-field scores from the 150th Open Championship

That’s not to say that McIlroy is on autopilot this week, unable or unwilling to engage or to appreciate this rare opportunity to win here in his prime. Earlier he spoke eloquently of how a St. Andrews Open is the “holy grail,” and how he was eager to make up for opportunities lost both in 2010, when he started 63-80, and 2015, when he missed The Open because of a fluke injury. While starting out in the second round, he tipped his cap to Tiger Woods, who was marching up the 18th fairway, perhaps for the final time as a competitor. And on Saturday, as he needed an up-and-down on the last to keep pace with Hovland, McIlroy turned to his right to locate his parents and young family in one of the rooms at the Rusacks Hotel.

He was 25, single and free and fearless, when he won his last major. Now he’s 33, with a wife and young daughter, and more than 15 years of hard-earned experience and perspective.

“It’s appreciating the fact that it’s unbelievably cool to have a chance to win The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “It’s what dreams are made of. And I’m going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow.”

On the stakes, on the significance, on his readiness to capture that long-awaited fifth major – that’s as far as he’d go, and that’s OK.

His process isn’t for public discourse. A victory Sunday would say plenty.