Keeping Score

A Rory Story: McIlroy’s Mental Game Wins the U.S. Open

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Doug Kapustin / MCT via Getty Images

Rory McIlroy holds up the U.S. Open championship trophy, after winning the U.S. Open, Sunday June 19, 2011

He could have used a putter off the tee for the entire fourth round and still won the 2011 U.S. Open.

Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old golf phenom from Northern Ireland, shot a 2-under-par 69 in the final round of the U.S. Open on Sunday, giving him a preposterous 16-under-par score for the tournament, and an eight-shot victory. It was McIlroy’s first major championship; golf now has a new front man, a curly-haired, Guinness-loving chap whom the crowd at the Congressional Country Club utterly adored. It was as if the American golf fans, struggling to stay interested in the sport after Tiger Woods’ downfall, were thirsting for someone fresh to keep them hooked. McIlroy filled their needs, his non-American roots no hindrance to their approval.

Such is the power of a transcendent performance. McIlroy broke a slew of records. He reached double-digits under par faster than any golfer in U.S. Open history, doing it in 26 holes. He had the lowest U.S. Open score after 36 holes (131), 54 holes (199), and 72 holes (268). In 2000, Tiger Woods had tied the prior record for lowest under-par score at a U.S. Open, when he shot a 12-under at Pebble Beach. Tiger at Pebble – that was the performance to which all U.S. Open efforts would be measured. Thanks to his 16-under-par score, you’ll now have to match McIlroy.

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While McIlroy’s golf mechanics were extraordinary, his mental gymnastics are the lasting achievement of his win. If the world didn’t weep for McIlroy after the Masters in April, it certainly felt for him. Remember, McIlroy entered the last day of the Masters with a four-shot lead, and looked like he would cruise to the Green Jacket. But then he triple-bogeyed the 10th hole, bogeyed the 11th, double-bogeyed the 12th, and hit his tee-shot on 13th into the creek. He shot an 80, and finished tied for 15th. During the round, the boyish McIlroy looked on the verge of tears. People would have granted him a good cry.

But as soon as Charl Schwartzel won the Masters, McIlroy showed off his mental chops. He didn’t run away from his implosion, or sink into a funk. The next day, McIlroy posted a picture on Twitter; he and Schwartzel were smiling on a plane headed for Malaysia, site of their next tournament. “Flying to Malaysia with charl!” McIlroy wrote.  “Glad one of us has a green jacket on!!”

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After the Masters, McIlroy knew he’d have more opportunities to win a major. Bad Masters memories could have popped into McIlroy’s head on Sunday, wreaking havoc on his game, and endangering his enormous lead.  More than any other sport, golf is a mental minefield. Those yips are as common as chips.

Instead, McIlroy crushed the course for a fourth straight day. After he tapped in his final putt, McIlroy came off the green, and hugged his father, Gerry. “Hey Dad,” McIlroy said as he approached his pop. “Happy Father’s Day.”

Yep, it was pretty perfect. Will this embrace become familiar at the majors? Seems like a safe bet.