Thursday 20 June 2019

Rory McIlroy heading for US Open with the 'freedom' to attack

Rory McIlroy with the trophy and two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after winning the Canadian Open. Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy with the trophy and two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after winning the Canadian Open. Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy believes his stunning Canadian Open victory has given him the freedom to play on the front foot in this week's US Open.

In shooting a nine-under-par 61 to win his 16th PGA Tour title by seven shots, McIlroy put nine successive final group "failures" behind him and heads to Pebble Beach believing he has all the tools required to claim outright glory.

"I think what I'm proudest of is still playing with that freedom today going out being tied for the lead, just putting my foot down and really making this tournament mine," said McIlroy.

The Ulsterman had watched a string of players walk away with the trophy in some of golf's biggest events since losing out to Haotong Li at the 2018 Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

From the Masters, the BMW PGA and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to the Tour Championship, the WGC Mexico Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, he never played well enough to freewheel to victory and, as a result, got trampled in the stampede.

Comfortable

This time it was different.

"I just felt really comfortable with my game and played aggressively, swinging very freely and shot that 64 to get myself tied for the lead today," he said after banking $1.37 million (€1.2m).

"My confidence just grew all week. That freedom to swing away and be committed to what I was doing, that's really the difference between being in a final group and walking away with the trophy or not."

Sunday's win was his second of the year following that patient, final-round dissection of the field during the Players Championship at Sawgrass and follows months spent working on restoring his confidence.

"I've been playing well basically all year, been giving myself loads of chances to win," he said. "The criticism might have been that I haven't won enough, but hopefully today with not just winning, but the way I won, that gives me a lot of confidence going forward for sure.

"When I'm playing well, I find a little groove and want to just keep it going."

Whether he can do it on a tough, US Open set-up is the next challenge for McIlroy who moved up one place to third in the world behind Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson.

"At the Players Championship, I had to grind it out. Conditions were tough. You're sort of just hanging on, playing into the right spots, and I felt like this week, I was free. I trusted myself 100 per cent and I hit the shots when I needed to. Honestly, this victory probably gives me more confidence than the one at The Players because I played the way I did and I was so free out there."

Repeating the feat in California is now the challenge, but it will require a zen-like discipline he's found few times in his career.

"It's almost like you're out of your own body and looking at yourself play," said McIlroy, who has missed his last three US Open cuts. "For some times today, that's how it felt. If I could bottle that feeling and take it with me week-to-week, I would. But it sort of comes and goes. So it's just a matter of being confident with your game and everything falling into place.

"I think when you get to the US Open set-up, it can make you play careful, a little tentative and (you) try to guide it down the fairways. But if I've learned anything this week it's my game is good enough and swing is good enough that I can play with freedom.

"I'm not going to go and hit a driver on every hole, but when I pull a club out of the bag, I'll make a really good, committed swing and know, for the most part, it should work out for me."

He tees it up on Thursday with Spain's Jon Rahm and Australia's Marc Leishman at 3.51pm Irish time.

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