Rory McIlroy finished a shot short of winning his first major championship in nearly a decade.
Like at St. Andrews last year and other tournaments before it, the conversation will invariably shift to, “Did Wyndham Clark win the U.S. Open or did Rory McIlroy lose it?” As a good rule of thumb, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Similar to Wyndham Clark, Rory played a bunch of solid golf over the four days before making some sloppy bogeys down the closing stretch. Nevertheless, I’m more optimistic about the remainder of McIlroy’s major championship career than I was before this week or even after St. Andrews. Rory has made significant strides this year with his course management, a weapon that will benefit him in the future.
At the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, fairways were narrow and bouncy, and keeping your ball in the fairway required some luck. The dimensions and firmness of the holes called for bashing driver repeatedly as opposed to hitting less than driver to prioritize finding the fairway. Rory understood this. Entering Saturday of the PGA Championship, he made up his mind to rip driver all weekend.
Rory on his weekend plan: “I may just tee it high and bomb it everywhere.”
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) May 19, 2023
It worked. Despite bringing his C game to Oak Hill, he walked away with a T-7, in part because he strategized intelligently.
At Los Angeles Country Club, a nuanced test requiring more thoughtful strategy than Oak Hill, Rory adapted his game plan. He didn’t bash driver everywhere. Most notably, he hit 3-wood off the fifth tee all four days. The fairway wood enabled him to turn his tee shot right to left into the severe left-to-right slope of the fairway, significantly elevating his chances of finding the fairway. There just wasn’t enough room for Rory to fit a tee shot with driver reliably on the fairway on that hole. While other players smashed drivers into the right rough, he knew that 3-wood was the right club for him. Across all four days, Rory gained a cumulative 3.15 strokes to the field on the fifth hole. For reference, Rory gained 16 strokes on the field for the entire tournament, so a sizable percentage of his outperformance came from just the fifth hole.
All tournament, I was impressed with Rory’s ability to adapt his game plan to a unique golf course setup. He didn’t expend energy whining about the course, like several of his peers. He showed up with a smart game plan and picked the course apart.
I’ve disagreed with many of McIlroy’s on-course decisions in the past. He’s often seemed a bit lost, inconsistent and illogical with some of his club choices. That was not the case at LACC. He had a sharp strategy, and he nearly executed well enough to win the U.S. Open. Rory hit a few loose shots, like failing to convert the birdie on No. 8 and bogeying No. 14 with a wedge in hands. However, it is worth drawing the distinction between execution-related errors and strategic blunders.
Following a disappointing Sunday, Rory McIlroy is still looking for his fifth major championship. But he is not lost.