SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND – Two more long, windy and potentially rainy days remain and there is ground to be made up on the Open Championship scoreboard but it’s possible that in a perfectly timed and brilliantly biting comment on Thursday, caddie J.P. Fitzgerald may have stirred the beast in Rory McIlroy to life.
It was Thursday afternoon when the seeds of McIlroy’s second-round 68 in rugged conditions at Royal Birkdale were planted. It was then, after McIlroy had played his first six holes in 5-over par and found himself adrift in that impossible space between commitment and belief, that Fitzgerald gave McIlroy his mantra.
“You’re Rory (*#&%!) McIlroy, what are you doing?” Fitzgerald barked with an extra shake of salt in his words.
And there began the reversal of form and fortune that has taken McIlroy off the critical list and put him close enough to the lead in this weather-whipped championship to cast his shadow across the big yellow leaderboard alongside the 18th fairway.
After Fitzgerald’s prodding and the crystallization of a swing thought, McIlroy has played his last 30 holes in 6-under par, which is brilliant work in increasingly brutal conditions. On Friday morning, McIlroy birdied three of his first six holes, an eight-stroke improvement on where he’d found himself 18 holes and about 18 hours earlier.
“There was a lot of quality out there and I was happy to see that. Just have to try to keep that going for the next two days,” McIlroy said after his second round, sheltered finally from the relentless wind that buffeted Birkdale.
THE MARK OF A GOOD CADDIE
Good caddies know when to speak and when not to speak. The tone and tenor of their words can affect a shot, a round or their job security. Fitzgerald has had McIlroy’s bag on his shoulder for nine years, including four major championship victories. They keep an open dialogue, McIlroy suggested.
“He does (speak up) quite often, it’s just whether it penetrates my head is a different thing,” McIlroy said.
“He knows what to say out there and what not to say. And he definitely said the right thing yesterday when I needed it.”
Sensing the line of questioning Friday following his sudden change in form, McIlroy tried to temper the superlatives but acknowledged it would have been easy for him to have surrendered when it seemed he could do nothing right.
“It’s not as if I went through war out there. It was just a round of golf. I just stay patient,” McIlroy said.
“I was good. I was very proud of myself that I hung in there and tried to stay as positive as I possibly could. But, look, I just had to turn it around. I had to find a couple of little key thoughts, and I feel like I have.”
It didn’t hurt that the conditions – forever a part of the Open Championship narrative – softened Thursday afternoon when McIlroy had to feel as if he were trying to reverse the direction of an aircraft carrier.
There was nothing gentle about Friday, however.
“It’s just difficult. I don’t know how else to assess it,” Adam Scott said.
Charl Schwartzel had a share of the lead early in the second round and barely hung on to make the cut.
“As much as you want to challenge yourself, really it’s just luck. You’re hitting these shots and the ball is just going whatever,” said Schwartzel, who shot 78 Friday after an opening 66.
“Whereas (Thursday) with a little bit of a breeze you can really play golf. You can move the ball. The way it is out there (Friday), it’s not much fun.”
Players talked of allowing for 30 yards of movement on tee shots caught in what felt like perpetual crosswinds Friday. Rather than try to hold shots into the wind, most players opted to use the gusts as best they could.
At the par-3 12th, McIlroy hit a 5-iron on the 162-yard hole – and came up short.
As good as it was for McIlroy in Friday’s tempest, much of his good work could have slipped away. He needed to make par putts from outside his comfort zone at the 10th, 11th and 12th and he did – an encouraging development given his nagging inconsistency on the greens.
McIlroy accepted bogeys at the 13th and 15th holes as inevitable given the conditions and hit a gorgeous long iron into the par-5 17th green that set up his fourth birdie of the day. He set a target of being at level par through 36 holes and he went one better. The scoreboard says McIlroy shot rounds of 71-68 and he called them “huge rounds for very different reasons.”
What began with a voice in McIlroy’s ear Thursday afternoon has suddenly changed the conversation around Royal Birkdale.
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