LOS ANGELES -- For a day and a half at Los Angeles Country Club, the third major of the year felt more like the United States Amateur than the United States Open. Then Rory McIlroy stepped into his second shot at the par-5 8th hole, and the tournament began to take a shape.
Just as the sun finally found a golf course that has been searching for it over the last 36 hours, Rory whipped a long iron over and around a big tree on his left and left himself 20 feet for eagle to get to 8 under. It was unclear whether the USGA needed the sun more than McIlroy needed a few more coming home, but both got their wish, and the 2023 U.S. Open was officially on.
McIlroy easily two-putted for birdie before nearly dunking his shot on the par-3 ninth. Another birdie there, and he trailed just one player in the 156-golfer field at the time he finished up. Only Wyndham Clark (-9) bested McIlroy's 8-under number after the Friday morning wave.
Following an uninspired 37 over his first nine (the back nine of the golf course), McIlroy's chances of winning a fifth major felt like they were hanging in the balance. He needed something low on the front side, and he knew it. For the second consecutive day, he posted 30 on that part of the course. At a U.S. Open, the man who once called Hollywood (Country Down, Northern Ireland) home has played 18 holes on the front nine at Los Angeles Country Club in 60 total strokes.
"Obviously, at least for me, there's quite a scoring discrepancy from the front nine to the back nine," he said. "The front nine gives you some scoring opportunities and some wedges in your hand, a couple of par 5s, 6th hole. Yeah, the back nine is just a lot tougher. ... It feels like a sort of golf course where you try to make your score on the front and then try to hang on on the back."
LACC has receivedover the first two days of play. A prevailing narrative has been that it's far too easy and not a U.S. Open of yesteryear, one apparently a lot of folks wish it would be. The second part is unquestionably true, but the benefit of the USGA not clapping back at players with rough as tall as Brian Harman and fairways skinnier than Joaquin Niemann is that some of the best minds in the sport must think their way around.
Perhaps no golfer in history has had the phrase, "He just needs to ..." said about them more frequently than McIlroy. Walk around the course and everyone has an opinion. Fans, volunteers, other players and the media. Oh, the media; if I could bottle the energy with which those of us covering the sports unleash takes about what exactly it is Rory needs to do to win his fifth major, I would sell it on eBay and buy a house or two on the back nine at LACC.
Here's the reality of it: At times, not even Rory knows what Rory needs to do to win a fifth. He has tried different theories and attempted various strategies. Over the last nine years -- from the 2014 PGA Championship to the 2023 U.S. Open -- he's basically tried it all. It's netted him a stunning 18 top 10s at those 32 major championship appearances, but frustratingly, zero wins.
Rory's 65-67 start at the U.S. Open is his best at any major since that PGA Championship. In all three majors that he's scored 67 or lower in consecutive rounds to begin play, he's 3-0 claiming trophies.
Whether this week ends with a victory remains to be seen, but McIlroy's strategic plan has been inspired either way. He seems alive with the creativity LACC engenders, and he's been changing speeds throughout, often showing off his trove of artillery. Blasting driver, sure, and leading the field in strokes gained off the tee, but it has not been only driver because the course demands a variety of pitches.
On Thursday, McIlroy hit an iron off the 10th. On Friday, he hit a fairway wood. He held off, showed discipline and displayed patience. It was, perhaps, the result of walking LACC early in the week with two different golf course architects to get a feel for how it plays. In Round 1, he went for the green on the par-4 6th. In Round 2, he hit iron and laid back. Both days resulted in birdie. He said after his round on Friday that there has been some thought behind the plan.
For example, actually really like 3-wood off the fifth tee for him. Allows him to hit a draw into the slope. Would be hard to find the fairway with driver. Two under on that hole through two rounds.— Joseph LaMagna (@JosephLaMagna) June 16, 2023
"For whatever reason, I went on to YouTube a few weeks ago and was just looking back at Hoylake in 2014 and ... I actually couldn't believe how many irons and 3 woods and stuff I was hitting off the tee," he said. "It set something off in my mind about, 'You know how to do this. You know how to play smart. You don't have to hit driver all the time.'
"Yes, it's a big weapon. It's a big advantage. But I keep saying I've got more weapons in my arsenal I feel now than I did back then, so I may as well use them and play to them. I've went through periods over the last few years where I haven't been patient enough and I've taken on too much. ... But I think we've had some tests recently where you have to display patience, and hopefully those few experiences recently will help me this weekend."
Watching Hoylake highlights where he took his Open over Rickie Fowler was prescient. Fowler shot 62 on Thursday and may lead this U.S. Open on Friday evening. They may well be paired on Sunday afternoon.
The week seems to be breaking McIlroy's way. The clouds parting as he walked home his 67 was a spotlight for the close, but it also serves a different purpose as Rory finds some rest. It will finally (finally!) harden a golf course that needs a bit of spice on Friday afternoon. McIlroy won't have to deal with it again for over 24 hours as his 8-under number will put him in one of the last few pairings of the third round.
"The course has played maybe a little easier than everyone thought it would, but [I] wouldn't be surprised on Saturday/Sunday to see it bite back, which ... I feel is what a U.S. Open is all about," he said. "It should be tough. It should be just as much of a mental grind out there as a physical one."
Now it's truly U.S. Open time, which is -- perhaps surprisingly -- a place where McIlroy has thrived over the last few years despite his lack of victories. With four straight premium performances, he's likely about to become the second player in the last 40 years to finish in the top 10 at five consecutive U.S. Opens.
So, the question that remains is not whether his strategic adherence will again result in a nice finish at the end of another week. That seems a foregone conclusion. No, the question now is whether, in another year or two, highlights from this week at Los Angeles Country Club will be worth rewatching on YouTube by a five-time major champion.