BROOKLINE, Mass. -- Rory McIlroy has been crusading for the soul of golf for the last several weeks. On Thursday, in the first round of the 122nd U.S. Open, he reminded everyone why his words carry such weight.
McIlroy is a tremendous communicator, full stop. He has taken up the mantle as the foremost spokesperson in the game for what its future looks like 10 or even 50 years from now, and in doing so, he has offered enlightening insight, wise counsel and a path forward for a game whose equilibrium has been thrown off-kilter by the LIV Golf-PGA Tour duel.
There are other great talkers in the game, too, but they don't shoot 67s across their first 18 holes at The Country Club.
The four-time major winner is in an eight-year drought when it comes to winning big ones, but McIlroy entered the week playing as well as he's played in years. A near-miss at the Masters in April, a blown first-round lead at the PGA Championship in May and a win last week at the RBC Canadian Open -- in which he gained over 20 strokes and held off Tony Finau and Justin Thomas -- were perhaps his best-ever lead up to the U.S. Open.
His game right now is tighter than a Tiger Woods mock neck shirt.
On Thursday, McIlroy built toward something nearly perfect with pars at the first six holes and two birdies in his last three on the back nine of the course (he started on No. 10). A ridiculous par save on the tough par-3 2nd hole, plus an impossible one from a bunker on the short par-4 5th kept the momentum going downhill. Rory then birdied No. 7 and No. 8 to drive his scored to 4 under before a frustrating bogey at the last led to a club toss and some words that NBC wouldn't be able to air even if desired.
McIlroy was uncharacteristically surly for somebody who was tied for the clubhouse lead at the United States Open. It was surely the angriest 67 he's ever shot.
In addition to the club toss, McIlroy unloaded on a bunker on that 5th hole after chunking one out of the juiciest junk into another bunker a few yards away. After his round, he called out the players in front of his group for being slow and explained why he was so frustrated.
"You're going to encounter things at a U.S. Open, whether they be lies or stuff like that, that you just don't really encounter any other week," said McIlroy of the 5th hole. "It's hard not to get frustrated because I'm walking up there going like, 'Just come back into the bunker.' The thickest rough on the course is around the edges of the bunkers.
"I was sort of cursing the USGA whenever I was going up to the ball. It's one of those things. It happens here; it doesn't really happen anywhere else. You just have to accept it. I gave the sand a couple of whacks because I'd already messed it up, so it wasn't like it was much more work for [caddie] Harry [Diamond], and then I just reset and played a decent bunker shot, and then it was really nice to hole that putt.
"But yeah, you're going to encounter things this week that you don't usually come across the other weeks of the year, and you just have to try to accept them as best you can."
If you've followed McIlroy for longer than the last three days, it's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt for such outbursts. Though he's not exempt from criticism for club tossing and sand excavation projects, it's also a bit of a delight to see somebody who at times has seemed as if was sleepwalking at major championships clear-eyes and completely engaged.
When he was asked if he believed it was OK to show competitive anger on the golf course -- to remind other people of how much meaning the majors hold -- his answer was typically great.
"Yeah, of course," he said. "Almost to remind yourself sometimes how much it means to you as well."
All four of McIlroy's major wins have included first rounds in which he scored 67 or lower, and in those four -- 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship, 2014 Open Championship, 2014 PGA Championship -- McIlroy either had the lead or was within one of the top after Round 1. That's likely a position he'll find himself in once Thursday's round concludes.
Rory McIlroy: 29th career major championship round of 67 or lower— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) June 16, 2022
Most rounds of 67 or lower in major championships since 1995
Tiger Woods, 48
Phil Mickelson, 37
Rory McIlroy, 29
Ernie Els, 25
Surely shouldering the dynamic load of an entire sport has eroded his emotions in ways he might not even be able to recognize right now. When players, media and even executives at the highest level in the game are asking what you believe to be the best way forward, the taxation is immense.
However, after the round, McIlroy deferred his role as the preeminent statesman of a game that's a century and a half old.
"I'm just being me," he said. "I'm living my life. I'm doing what I think is right and trying to play the best golf that I possibly can. I wasn't asked to be put here. I wasn't trying to be in this position. I'm just being me."
The problem for McIlroy is that he's perhaps the greatest driver in the history of the sport, and he might be an even better talker. His game gives his words gravity, and gravity rules the world.
As the U.S. Open finds its footing, though, it will be nice to shelve the talk of brouhahas and scuttlebutt between organizations that are fighting an inequitable yet inevitable war. Even McIlroy, when asked whether he wants to win this tournament as a means for consolidating power to turn the tide of his sport even more, instead turned the spotlight from the future to the past and now the present.
He did what we should all be doing -- at least for the next three days -- by reminding everyone of the historical magnitude of the major championship that's now underway and could soon be within his grasp. A major championship that, based on the unintended consequences of the dilution of regular season golf, now.
"Not really," McIlroy said when asked if, as the heart of the sport off the course, he was inspired to make a statement on it.
"It's been eight years since I won a major, and I just want to get my hands on one again."