BROOKLINE, Mass. -- In some ways, Rory McIlroy has been chasing his 25-year-old self for the last eight years. He's 33 now without a major championship since that summer he turned 25. He won two that season to match the two he already possessed yet has come up empty over the the subsequent 81 months.
On Saturday at the 2022 U.S. Open, McIlroy will be up against three iterations of that former self as he tries to jump-start his major championship career.
Colin Morikawa (age 25), Scottie Scheffler (25) and Jon Rahm (27) have four majors combined, the same number as the now-elder statesman of their sport. Morikawa is one stroke up on McIlroy with Rahm tied alongside the Ulsterman and Scheffler one back. They have Rory surrounded.
McIlroy nearly kicked away this U.S. Open before it really got good. After shooting 67 and sitting one shot back Thursday, he co-led by the time his second round started Friday. Rory started par-par, but disaster on No. 3 led to a 25-foot putt for double bogey, which he buried.
He danced from 1 under to 2 under and back again for most of the day Friday, summoning visions of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, which he had in his grasp until he did not, that dancing in fans' heads.
A bogey on No. 10 pushed McIlroy back to 1 under, and it all seemed to be slipping away. In that moment, he thought, "I just wanted to try to shoot under par [on the day]." Three birdies coming home with no bogies across the final eight holes meant he did, barely.
McIlroy surged on the back nine to shoot 69, a solid follow to his 67 that put him 4 under and one back of a lead shared by Morikawa and Joel Dahmen.
McIlroy has appeared wound tight all week, partly because. But it's clear he senses that this is his best chance in several years to add to his major collection. McIlroy is a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out major moments, and he's taken advantage of nearly every one he's played himself into.
It's been a long time, though, and he knows that having previously won this event in 2011 won't help him win this U.S. Open.
"I think I have to go out with the mindset this week that I'm going to try to win my first again," said McIlroy. "I'm playing as good of golf as I've played in a long time. I have a lot of experience. Yes, I've won major championships and other big events, but ... just because I've done that, it doesn't mean that I'll hit better golf shots or I'll hit better putts.
"I'm in a good place. I'm really happy with where my game is at, and I think that's the most important thing."
The on-course freedom McIlroy has chased can be found in the hearts of Morikawa, Scheffler, and to an extent, Rahm.
Will McIlroy summon what those guys embody -- what he once embodied better than anyone -- over the weekend?
Morikawa and Scheffler and Rahm have a youth's ability to let themselves gallop because they don't yet know that they might get tired. For years now, McIlroy has appeared unsure of whether he can trust himself enough to let himself go. Now? Well, he seems ready.
"You want to go up against the best to try to bring the best out of yourself," said McIlroy. "And to see Collin and Jon and Scottie and Sam [Burns] up there, and whoever else, that's what major championship golf is all about. That's what competition is all about.
"I certainly don't want it to be easy. I want guys to go out and shoot 65 so I have to go and shoot 64. That's competition, and that's at the heart of this game. I'm excited to be in that mix going into the weekend."
When McIlroy is feeling himself and the moment, everything looks like liquid.
Other players strike or thwack or hammer. Rory flows. His swing, certainly, but also his entire ethos. His presence runs fills up major championships.
There was a 10-minute stretch on Friday that embodied this as McIlroy closed out his round with playing partners Xander Schauffele and Hideki Matsuyama. An analog leaderboard danced with the crooked letters S-C-H-A-U-F-F-E-L-E just over McIlroy's shoulder as he filled up the 17th cup with his fifth and final birdie of the day to get to 4 under.
McIlroy swaggered to the 18th tee where, during a long wait for the group in front of him, he juggled golf balls handed to him by Schauffele's caddie. The Juggler who would soon go for the jugular.
As McIlroy gained momentum at the end of his round, he moved about the property with the freedom of water.
All of it begs the question: Can you flow on the weekend at a U.S. Open while dragging so much of your past along with you and observing so many young stars who don't have to manage that burden?
With the sun fading on this craggy old course, McIlroy was asked Friday whether he could play with freedom at Brookline. A look of old washed over the face of the four-time major champion.
"For the first time in a long time," he said pointedly.
The weekend will be telling.