SAN DIEGO — His biggest fans peered down from above as Rory McIlroy’s long eagle putt from the back of the 18th green stopped within tap-in range for a closing birdie. Erica Stoll clapped as best she could for her husband while holding their young daughter on the hotel balcony and then went inside, her golf watching over for the day.
McIlroy was planning to join her, and maybe take a peek himself from the balcony overlooking Torrey Pines at the leaders making their way down the 18th fairway in the U.S. Open. There would be dinner, too, though there was no need for the room service menu.
“I’ve had the same chicken sandwich five nights in a row,”’ McIlroy said. “So I’ll probably make it six nights in a row.”
No reason to switch things up now. Not when McIlroy is in contention in the Open for the first time in what seems forever.
Besides, he said, he really likes the sandwich.
“It’s rotisserie chicken, avocado, sun dried tomatoes, some garlic aioli and some holey bread,”’ McIlroy said. “It’s really good.”
So was McIlroy’s golf Saturday as he shot a relatively stress-free round of 67 to pull within two shots of the lead in a tournament he last won a decade ago as a baby-faced 22-year-old.
That win at Congressional was a runaway from the start, with McIlroy lapping the field and winning by eight shots. It was his first major championship title, and surely the first of many more to come for the phenom from Northern Ireland.
If it seemed easy then, it was. A decade later, McIlroy now understands just how tough it can be.
“Twenty-eleven felt like a walk in the park compared to this,” he said. “You know, if I am going to get another U.S. Open trophy, I’m going to have to fight for it a little more than I did 10 years ago.”
At least he’s in the fight, something McIlroy hasn’t been able to say in recent years as he’s struggled to contend far more than he has actually contended. It’s been 10 years since he won the Open, and seven years since he won his last major championship, the 2014 PGA at Valhalla.
Too often he’s tightened up early and shot himself out of major tournaments, including the 2019 British Open in his native country when he opened with a quadruple bogey and didn’t even make it to play on the weekend.
Too often he’s watched in frustration as yet another major slipped away.
“Probably just putting a little too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being a little tentative,” McIlroy said earlier in the week. “I think that sort of sums it up.”
He came to Torrey Pines feeling better about himself and his game after breaking a nearly two-year victory drought by winning in North Carolina. That victory came on Mother’s Day, the first celebrated by the couple who had a daughter, Poppy, in September.
His first Father’s Day could be even more memorable.
“Mother’s Day was pretty good to us a few weeks ago, so hopefully we can have the same result on Father’s Day,” he said.
It just might happen if McIlroy can play the kind of steady golf he did Saturday, when he made five birdies, a bunch of pars and then fist-pumped after salvaging a bogey on the 15th hole after hitting it left into the canyons that wind through the seaside golf course.
The bogey save kept him in the mix, and when he tapped in for the finishing birdie as his family applauded from the hotel balcony.
“There was really one loose shot out there, which was the drive on 15,” he said. “But apart from that, it’s one of the best rounds of golf I’ve played in a while.”
One more of those rounds and McIlroy could be hoisting the Open trophy. He’s a proven winner when he’s in the mix, though his trouble in recent years has been getting into the mix.
Now there’s only one player with a major championship in front of him (Louis Oosthuizen) and McIlroy is feeling good about his game and his chances.
“I thought like two 68s over the weekend from where I was after Friday was going to have a good chance,” he said. “I’ve done the first part of that job. Now it’s up to me tomorrow to go out and try to play a similar round of golf.
“Yeah, I’m just excited for the opportunity.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg