2022 U.S. Open: McIlroy brushes off mini bunker meltdown to contend at Brookline

Rory McIlroy needed just 67 blows to negotiate the U.S. Open’s opening round on Thursday but it was two aggressive swings that didn’t count that encapsulated the emotional tightrope the Northern Irishman walks every time he pegs it up in a major championship nowadays.

The 33-year-old entered America’s 122nd national championship in giddy form courtesy of his successful RBC Canadian Open defence on Sunday following equally encouraging top-10s at the Masters (2nd) and the PGA Championship (8th) at Southern Hills.

It’s the type of form you don’t want to waste, not eight years into an inexplicable major championship drought and especially not given how many Thursdays he’s messed up in the bigs in recent years.

That’s exactly why a bunker McIlroy partially found himself in on the drivable par-4 5th (his 14th hole) at The Country Club on Thursday took two frustrated lashings after the world No.3 was only able to advance his ball a short distance forward into another trap. It was an awkward lie and an awkward moment where McIlroy perhaps wasn’t the only one fearing he might be once more imploding before another major had really got going.

Mercifully, McIlroy somehow managed to get up and down from the sand, willing in a 13-footer to save par. It made a dropped shot on his last hole, The Country Club’s 9th, slightly more palatable as the four-time major champion eased his way into a five-way share of second place, a stroke behind Canadian pace-setter Adam Hadwin.

“It’s a great start to the tournament,” a relieved McIlroy said afterwards.

“You’d take 67 around this golf course any day. I felt like I did most things well. I certainly putted well. And I hit the ball in the right spots. I hit a lot of greens and gave myself plenty of chances. Just basically did everything that you need to do at a U.S. Open. That’s now two majors in a row that I’ve started well. Hopefully, I can just keep going from here.”

McIlroy’s putting, in particular, stood out, 28 strokes of his trusty mallet camouflaging the fact he hit only 57 percent of the fairways he aimed at and missed five greens in regulation.

But it was the moment in the bunker that proved critical – and just how much microscopic attention just about every shot McIlroy has hit since he last won major – the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool – faces.

“You’re going to encounter things at a U.S. Open that you don’t really encounter any other week,” McIlroy said.

“It’s hard not to get frustrated because I’m walking up there going like, ‘just come back into the bunker.’ The thickest rough is around the edges of the bunkers. So I was cursing the USGA going up to the ball. The margins are just so fine in this tournament, and I think you can sort of see that out there with some of the reactions.

“But you just have to accept it. I gave the sand a couple of whacks because I’d already messed it up. It wasn’t like it was much more work for [caddie] Harry [Diamond]. Then I reset and played a decent bunker shot. It was really nice to hole that putt.”

Indeed, that putt kept the momentum going. Whether McIIroy can crack on and win the Wannamaker Trophy remains to be seen. If he does, it would set up a chance to emulate Lee Trevino’s fabled 1971 ’triple crown’ of Canadian, US and British Opens when St. Andrews hosts the 150th Open Championship next month.

The relief is that he at least still has that chance.

“I feel like I’m right in the tournament, which is nice,” he said. “I’m going into tomorrow with the mindset of ‘let’s keep it going,’ rather than ‘where is the cut line?’

“If you don’t get off to a great start those thoughts start to creep in. It’s certainly a different mindset when you get off to a good start. I’ve just got to keep it going.”

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