Rory McIlroy made an emphatic move up the leaderboard, shooting another 6-under 66 at Royal Liverpool to take a 4-shot lead over Dustin Johnson in the Open Championship.
McIlroy has been having trouble backing up good rounds on Thursdays by basically going dead in the water rather than being able to continue going low. It became such a pattern that it was dubbed, “Freaky Friday.” And that, in turn, became a topic of Thursday night’s media session. In so many words, “Would he blow it again?”
With Friday’s performance, McIlroy has at least put a damper on this latest golf superstition. And as he finished, it was actually a 6-shot lead until Johnson also birdied 17 and 18.
But it didn’t start out looking all that impressive; he bogeyed the first hole. But that didn’t have the chilling effect that it had in the past:
“Going out today I’m watching some of the coverage earlier this morning. I saw that it was a little trickier today with the wind being up. It seemed like the guys out earlier were struggling to make many birdies and try to push their way up the leaderboard.”
“Starting off I was just trying to keep it steady and solid, and knew that I would have some chances on the par 5s and some of the holes that were playing downwind. So even though I started a little shaky with that bogey on the first, I was still pretty confident. I had some chances coming up. It was nice to be able to take them.”
What exactly is it that allows him to get into that mindset where that seemingly, oh, so important first-hole bogey doesn’t even make him flinch? And not only that, he just presses on and deeper?
“I don’t know if I can describe it. It’s just I feel quite, just like I have an inner peace on the golf course. I just have — I don’t know, just feel very comfortable. I’m very comfortable in this position. I’m very comfortable doing what I’m doing right now. It’s hard to describe. I wish I could get into it more often. If I’m able to do it a few times a year, that’s nice.”
“I think it’s a combination of confidence. It’s just being mentally strong, mentally aware of everything. But I think it all comes down to if you’re confident with your game and you’re in control of your ball out there, it makes things a lot easier.”
But does he know how he does it?
Oddly, no one directly followed up on that answer, but he was asked how much fun it was to have this kind of lead in something as big as the Open and be able to just freewheel it. And his answer to that question obliquely answered the question about knowing how he manages to get into the zone:
“As I said yesterday you try and enjoy every minute of it, even if sometimes it feels like a bit of a grind and you’re working extremely hard to keep it together or try and make some more birdies or whatever it is. But the atmosphere out there is incredible. To be able to play in front of crowds like that is — you have to enjoy it, really. It makes it easier when you are shooting 66s and you are in the lead.”
“Yeah, I’ve been in this position before in major championships. I haven’t been in this position in The Open Championship. I’m just really looking forward to the weekend and hopefully continuing the strong play that you’ve seen so far.”
So the inevitable Freaky Friday question came up and he was asked to explain why this Friday round was so different from earlier disappointments?
“It was just another solid round of golf. I didn’t have [Freaky Friday] in my head at all. Going out there, I just wanted to play another solid round of golf, stick to my game plan, stick to doing what I do well, which is take advantage of the par 5s, maybe take advantage of some of the other holes that are downwind. That’s all I was thinking about. And I went out there and executed the game plan the way I wanted to. So just another really solid round of golf. And I’ll need two more of those again.”
He was asked how he would compare these two rounds with the 65, 66 start he had in his lopsided 2011 U.S. Open win at Congressional?
“Two majors does it good, which is nice. It’s hard to compare two completely different courses and different conditions. But I feel, as I was just saying previously, I feel the same feelings. And maybe not in the way I’m swinging or in my golf, but just in my mind, mentally. So that’s a great thing.”
But still the Freaky Friday questions persisted. Could he explain the relief he feels?
“Yeah, in a way, you know, it’s nice to go out and shoot a good one today, so I don’t have to be asked about it again until I might shoot a good score at Akron [the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone], and then people are asking me on Thursday afternoon. It’s understandable. People ask you. My second rounds this year have been terrible. And there isn’t really any explanation. But hopefully I put it to bed today.”
After his bogey on the 1st hole, he made birdies on 5 and 6. That was the point that he knew that he was in the zone. But interestingly, instead of describing it as a mind-state, he described it as a feeling:
“Probably when I rolled the putt in for birdie on the 6th hole. I birdied 5 to get back to even par. And then I birdied 6 to get under par for the day, and I thought, this feels good.”
“Once I improved on my score from yesterday in terms of I was 6. Once I got to 7, I felt like, okay, this time I feel good. I can get to 8. I can get to 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.”
And this was interesting. He was asked if he did any sort of pre-round preparation such meditation or visualization exercises and it came out that he’s using a two-word trigger this week before each shot:
“Yeah, I just take it as I feel it. I’ve got a couple little words, trigger words that I’m using this week, that I sort of keep telling myself in my head when I’m on my way around the golf course, when I’m just about to hit it, go into a shot. But that’s really it. That’s as complex as it gets in my head.”
“I’m just really trying to stick to my game plan and stick to — keep telling myself these couple of words that I keep reciting in my head. And that’s really it. Whether I’m one shot in the lead or ten shots in the lead or whatever it is, I’ll just keep trying to do the same thing.”
And then he took one last stab at distilling this whole conversation about just what the zone is:
“People call it the zone, people call it whatever. It’s just a state of mind where you think clearly. Everything seems to be on the right track. I’ve always said, whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you’ve played so badly before. And whenever you’ve play so badly, you always wonder how you play so well.”
“Golf is a very fickle game. I’m happy where my game is at the minute, and hopefully I can just keep up the solid play for another couple of days.”
Yeah, but will he tell us the two words?
“I’ll tell you on Sunday, hopefully.”
You know what this means, of course. Now we have to watch Sunday’s finish.