Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open yesterday at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, in record-shattering form. About the only record he didn’t break was Tiger’s 15-shot victory margin, but he was so dominant, it felt like he did anyway.
A couple of reasons for that. First, he had the emotional scars from his horrific collapse in the final round of the Masters; could he overcome that? And second, his freewheeling swing was so bullet-proof over the first three rounds, history tells us that there is no way to keep such momentum going over four rounds. When he managed both of those things with such aplomb, it made his victory seem all the more dominant.
In the first instance, there was this simple, humble explanation during his post-round interview:
Q. After Augusta, a lot was written about a mental scars and all that kind of business. I wonder did you see any of that, and if you did have any mental scars, how were you able to get over them so quickly, if there was a key moment or key thought or somebody said something?
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I felt like I got over the Masters pretty quickly. I kept telling you guys that and I don’t know if you believed me or not. But here you go (laughter) nice to prove some people wrong.
But, no, I don’t know, I was very honest with myself and I knew what I needed to do differently. And that was the thing. I had a clear picture in my mind of what I needed to do and where my focus needed to be when I got myself in that position again. And luckily enough for me, I was able to get in that position, you know, the major right after Augusta. To be able to finish it off the way I did, you know, it just tells me that I learned from it and I’ve moved on and now I’ve got this, I can go ahead and concentrate on getting some more.
The thing about his answer is that it assumes an optimistic outlook on life unburdened by any sort of adherence to conventional wisdom: you don’t have to wring your hands and do some sort of formal penance to move beyond life’s harsher lessons. You get the message, you adjust and you move on.
And so, as to the second instance, history says that it’s not possible to shoot all four rounds in the 60s in a U.S. Open, never been done. But if you are in the moment and just play, you can. McIlroy shot 65, 66, 68, 69. History? What history?
Q. Looked like you had beautiful rhythm with all 14 clubs, putter and driver, especially. But really all the clubs. Do you have a mantra in your head for rhythm that maybe we could steal from you?
Not really. When you’re swinging well and you’re that comfortable, everything just seems quite rhythmical anyway, even the way you walk and just your whole thought process, everything just seems to go quite well. But, no, nothing, really. I didn’t really have a swing thought this week. I was just seeing the target and hitting it. It was just one of those weeks where everything was on and it worked out the right way.
But in addition to these two things, McIlroy had just been minding his own business, going through the maturation process any developing golfer goes through, when a quantum shift occurred in his sense of himself, in his sense of the possibility for himself as a golfer on the world stage.
Q. Do you remember when you first thought or when you were first told you could be a Major champion one day?
No. I think the first time that I realized it for myself was about this time last year, when Graeme [McDowell] won [the U.S. Open] at Pebble, and then Louis [Oosthuizen] won [the British Open] at St. Andrews. And then Martin [Kaymer] won [the PGA Championship] at Whistling Straits, [all good friends on the European Tour in their 20s] and then I got myself in a good position at the Masters, and then obviously now. I think when Graeme won last year, it made me realize that winning a Major championship was achievable, attainable. To see a great friend like that win a Major, it only inspires you. It inspires you to go out and emulate them. And funny enough, I was able to do that this week.
But, of course, it always comes back to the swing doesn’t it? How is it possible that someone playing at this level defies conventional wisdom again and pays virtually no attention to his swing mechanics?
I’ve been working with the same coach, Michael Bannon for, I don’t know, 15 years, maybe, something like that, 16 years. So we – at this moment in time, we know where we want my golf swing to be. And we know the positions that it needs to be in for me to hit good shots. It’s been a long process. A lot of the early days was fundamentals, getting a good grip, good setup, good alignment, everything like that, building the base of the swing. And then from there, at an early age I used to be very upright, my left arm used to be very, very high at the top.
And then I remember at about 13 or 14, I was getting a very flat swing, so I was just trying to find a happy medium in there. And it feels as we’ve got to the point now – probably felt when I was 16, was I don’t feel like my swing has changed that much since then until now. I find a few adjustments here and there.
For more on the anatomy of McIlroy’s swing and his work with his coach, Michael Bannon, see this “must-read” article by Sally Jenkins in Saturday’s Washington Post. She sums up the importance of her piece in this one sentence:
What we do know, what can be said with absolute certainty, is that he has the best swing anyone has seen in generations, a pure and effortless dynamic that has made mincemeat out of Congressional and the record book for two rounds, and which should change the way the game is taught.
And in one succinct sentence, Johnny Miller agrees with her.
“It’s the best swing in golf.”