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PINEHURST, N.C. -- Rory McIlroy is not at Pinehurst No. 2 to socialize. That became clear over the first three days of this week and further crystalized Thursday evening as McIlroy opened the 2024 U.S. Open with a bogey-free 65. That's good enough to co-lead the event with his Ryder Cup rival, Patrick Cantlay, after 18 holes of play. 

McIlroy's personal life of late has been more public than he would like as it was announced just before the PGA Championship that he was getting divorced. This week of the U.S. Open, it was announced that he and his wife had reconciled and would be remaining together. 

Whether for that reason or another, he has been unusually tight-lipped during his run at Pinehurst about anything and everything as he tries for his fifth career major championship and first in nearly 10 years. The normally chatty, jovial Ulsterman has neither been unpleasant nor surly, but he has certainly been shorter and less willing to disclose information regarding his game or otherwise. 

The result in Round 1 is something else that is also abnormal for McIlroy: opening a major with a bogey-free round and the lead (he's led just twice after the first round of a major since 2014). 

McIlroy's results when playing bogey-free golf early in majors have been excellent.

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The word that kept coming to mind as McIlroy scampered around Pinehurst next to the guy everyone else is chasing, Scottie Scheffler, was sensible. He hit sensible shots, did not take on lines that were too aggressive and played to the middle of greens, hitting 15 of 18 in regulation.

"I think just super conservative with my strategy and my game," he said of his plan.

If he continues to keep his head in that way, McIlroy will assuredly win his long-awaited fifth major on Sunday evening. His touch around the greens and his lag putting were even on point, right up until the end of his round when he walked in a birdie putt so early on the 18th that it would have been fair to laugh out loud.

"I thought I'd left it short," he said. "That's why I walked off it. Full disclosure. It looked good, though."

It did look good. So did everything else. During a practice round Wednesday with Martin Kaymer, who won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst when it was last played here in 2014, McIlroy was at times 40 or 50 yards past him. He's been wailing on the ball but also keeping himself almost completely out of trouble. He hit 11 of 14 fairways on Thursday, too. That is always a good formula.

McIlroy is hitting golf shots as well. Towering irons when the moment demands it but also spinny chips, bump-and-runs and this rolling, low-hook drive that has "major championship golf" written all over it.

Rory's game is sharp, but that has rarely been the question with him at majors. Despite five consecutive top 10s at the U.S. Open, his roadblocks over the last 10 years at the four big ones have seemingly been more mental and emotional.

McIlroy is the rare reflective athlete who expends too much energy on too many areas outside of his own game. He gives away too much of himself too much of the time to too many different people. 

Whether his current personal issues have been the impetus for him pulling back and turning a bit inward this week is uncertain, but what is undeniable is that he has not poured quite as much time, thought or effort into everything that's not golf. That is his prerogative, of course, but it is perhaps the best way for him to invest his energy.

It's also just … different from his standard disposition. 

Even watching his post-round press conference after shooting one of the best major rounds of his career, one could tell McIlroy is acting more reserved. He's giving less away. In fact, that is at least part of the plan this week, he said Thursday.

"I think, with my demeanor, just trying to be super stoic," McIlroy explained. "Just trying to be as even-keeled as I possibly can be. I really feel like that's the thing that has served me well in these U.S. Opens over the past few years. Just trying to be 100% committed to the shots and 100% committed to having a good attitude."

Rory is seemingly always at odds with himself when it comes to this arena. The juxtaposition goes like this: He is not a natural-born killer. The churlish superstar of sport who swaggers around like the baddest dude on the property is not really McIlroy, the person. It's at odds with his humanity and his desire to please everyone within his orbit.

But perhaps the idea of a benevolent, always-generous McIlroy is at odds with being a major champion at this stage of his carer.

Because of this constant war, the burden of being Rory McIlroy is more complicated than it seems, and it's heavier than with other stars. That is why Rory is beloved, of course, but it might also be why he's 0 for 36 in majors since that last win in 2014.

McIlroy is a superstar who embodies humanity. There is nobody else like him.

He insisted Thursday that he is no different as a person than he was this time a year ago when he nearly won the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. That may be true, but he's clearly carrying himself differently. The reason behind that is ambiguous, but the result -- at least through 18 holes -- is undeniable. 

With a U.S. Open and his major drought at stake, McIlroy has turned inward, gone stoic and focused on himself. For somebody who has given so much in so many ways over such a long period of time, this is understandable ... and admirable.

It might even be the formula he needs to finally break what must feel like the longest streak in golf. 

Rick Gehman, Patrick McDonald and Greg DuCharme recap the opening round of the 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.