Remember when Rory McIlroy used to be Jordan Spieth? The rising young face of professional golf?
Yeah, remember the McIlroy era? What was that … a few months ago, maybe? Generations in golf are cycling faster than fruit flies these days.
The 21-year-old Spieth is in strong contention to claim his second consecutive major tournament, while McIlroy is well back in the U.S. Open field at 4-over par after shooting a third-round 70.
Wait, McIlroy is No. 1 in the world rankings, right? Yeah, but that must be for the senior circuit because he’s, what, 26 years old.
When not spending Saturday night cleaning his dentures, McIlroy probably would spend time saying bad words at his putter — or the Chambers Bay greens — because he drove the ball and controlled his irons as well as ever.
But he agonized through hair-breadth missed putts on holes 10, 11, 12, 14, 15 and 17.
“I missed seven good chances on the back nine — or seven makeable putts, anyway,” he said. “I feel like I turned a 65 into a 70 today. Just real disappointing.”
When McIlroy scraped around on No. 18 Saturday and finally sank a par putt, he held his arms out from his side in mock triumph.
“It took a while to hole one there,” he said. “It was just nice to see one drop at the last there.”
His body language for most of this tournament has been a lot easier to interpret; his deep sighs, smirks, head shakes. It peaked Friday when he registered a four-putt double bogey on 17 and a bogey on 18.
When he neared the media area for quick post-round interviews Friday, he did a U-turn and declined. Apparently, it was tactful self-censorship.
“I was very frustrated to drop three shots on the last two holes and go from somewhat in contention to nine shots back,” he said. “It’s a big difference, especially here when it’s so hard to make up shots, so hard to make birdies. So I was disappointed, but at least I had a chance today to go out and try and get myself somewhat back into it.”
His putter didn’t allow it, though. He went out Saturday with a 2-under 33 on the front, which included a birdie on No. 2 and another on No. 7 — the toughest hole on the course.
On No. 7, he blasted a drive and drilled his approach to within about 6 feet. He confidently made his birdie putt. That was about the last one he made, several times gesturing to his caddie after he felt a missed putt had failed to track true on Chambers Bay’s much-maligned greens.
McIlroy was asked about Henrik Stenson’s comments that the greens were like putting on broccoli. He had a clever answer. “I don’t think they’re as green as broccoli, I think they’re more like cauliflower.”
Offering a more serious, non-vegetable-related perspective, he added: “They are what they are, everyone has to putt on them. It’s all mental.”
And, although he has four major championships to his credit, he concedes that the condition of the greens got in his head.
“It’s me,” he answered, when asked if the problem was with the greens or with his putting. “But then whenever you start to miss a couple, you start to get a little tentative, you start to doubt yourself. And then it just sort of snowballs from there.”
The comments about McIlroy’s aging were sarcastic, of course, as he’s still got the game of a world No. 1. In the past year, he’s won the British and the PGA, and took fourth in the Masters.
But earlier this season, he struggled, missing the cut in the BMW PGA Championship, and then again the following week at the Irish Open, shooting a first-round 80 in an event he hosts.
He said it was clear he needed some time off. He went to London and acted like a tourist, he said. The rest did him some good, if you look at his game from tee to green this week.
“I’m hitting great shots and great drives and giving myself chances the whole time,” he said. “It’s just hard to stay patient whenever I’m not holing anything. I feel (that) mentally I’ve accepted most things this week … which is good.”
Absolutely right; it’s a triumph for a golfer to accept those things they can’t control.
Consider that the wisdom of age.