ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – For a while, this was the hard part, the maddening part, the demoralizing part.
The part where he’d be in full flight, only to crash into a major.
The part where he couldn’t decide whether to treat major weeks as all-important or no more special.
The part where he’d start slow, only to rev into late contention.
That’s why it was telling Thursday that Rory McIlroy – after a 6-under 66 gave him his lowest first-round score in an Open in eight years – didn’t wait for others to mention his fast start.
He did so himself.
“It’s another good start at a major,” he said in his opening remarks, reflecting on his standout day. “Three in a row for me now.”
Augusta National remains an unsolved riddle, but McIlroy seems to have overcome his flummoxing first rounds.
A 65 at the PGA.
A 67 at the U.S. Open.
Now a 66 at this St. Andrews Open.
In all, he’s 12 under par in the opening rounds of majors this year.
Over the past seven years, he started out a combined 34 over par.
“I’ve played with a little more freedom, because I can, because I’m more in control of my swing and my game,” said McIlroy, who opened with 67 or better in all four of his major wins. “I think it sort of goes hand in hand: I have confidence and I can go out and play free and not be maybe as timid and tight starting off.
“Three majors in a row now where I feel like that, which is a really nice feeling considering how I have felt previously at times.”
Statistically, McIlroy is enjoying one of the best stretches of his decorated career. His putting, once considered a weakness, is now among the 10 best on Tour after he led the U.S. Open field in that strokes-gained category. Less than a year after his second-worst ball-striking season – and, uh, for a dose of perspective, he was still 10th on Tour – he’s back where he belongs, among the very elite (No. 2). It seems like an injustice that his consistently excellent form has produced just a single victory this year among his seven top-10s, even if McIlroy himself is the only one who doesn’t seem panicked about the lack of trophies.
“Everything feels very settled,” he said. “No real issues with my game. Everything feels like it’s in good shape. Everything feels sort of nice and quiet, which is a nice way to be.”
Part of that quiet calm stems from the fact that McIlroy has taken more ownership of his game. Though he’s kept swing coach Michael Bannon as part of his inner circle for more than two decades, McIlroy branched out last year by adding noted instructor Pete Cowen to his team. The partnership lasted but a couple months, with McIlroy determined to stumble upon solutions himself – with only the occasional validation from Bannon, his boyhood coach, who watched the action from a distance Thursday.
“The more you own what you have, the more it’s easier to manage,” McIlroy said. “I’m pretty good at this game. I think I know what I’m doing. I needed to take ownership of it again, and I think that’s where the freedom comes from.”
Indeed, on a cool but relatively calm day on the seaside links, McIlroy looked completely unburdened as he began in earnest his pursuit of this St. Andrews Open, an achievement he considered the “holy grail” in this sport.
“Today was a really solid round of golf,” defending champion Collin Morikawa said after seeing McIlroy’s seven-birdie round up-close. “Didn’t make any errors. Hit in the right spots. When he was out of position, put in a great spot. Overall, it was awesome.”
No one in golf can make exquisite golf appear so easy, but McIlroy contended that, even though he was driving par 4s and having only wedges into par 5s, there was nothing simple about navigating the “fiddliest” Open venue he’s ever played.
And so it was particularly pleasing that he dropped just a single shot, rising to the occasion in every pivotal moment throughout the round.
The uncomfortable 3-foot par save on 8.
The two-putt from 60 feet for bogey on 13.
The nifty up-and down for birdie from behind the green on 14.
The deft touch from 60 feet on 17.
“There’s just little parts of the round that shows you where you’re at with everything mentally and physically, and I came through all those little tests today unscathed,” McIlroy said. “I’m really proud of that.”
Just as satisfying was his final score.
Once again, he’s in this major from the opening bell. Now it’s up to him to back it up.