SAN DIEGO — “What’s wrong?’’
This has become a nagging question posed to some of the world’s best players — sometimes when it seems an unfair inquiry.
What’s wrong with Rory McIlroy, who hasn’t won a major championship since 2014 and whose only U.S. Open win came a decade ago?
Well, he won the Wells Fargo Championship last month at Quail Hollow. But he missed the cut at the Masters and finished in a tie for 49th at the PGA Championship, and golf (like any sport) is a what-have-you-done-lately game.
McIlroy has had particular problems early in major championships, struggling in opening rounds and playing himself out of contention.
Asked Wednesday, on the eve of the first round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, what he attributes his first-round struggles to, McIlroy was quick to answer.
“Probably just putting a little too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being a little tentative,’’ McIlroy said.
When you’re as talented as McIlroy is and you win four major championships in your first four years as a pro, you raise expectations. This is what he battles every time he tees it up in a major.
Asked what he can do to combat the pressure, he said, “I guess by being indifferent, by not caring, but by not putting myself under pressure that I have to care.
“If I went out and played this golf course any other week, you play free, and it’s just the same thing. You just have to be able to swing with that freedom, and that’s sort of what I’m trying to get back to. It’s about going out there and playing as free as I can and having that mentality that I had as a 22-year-old and just trying to get into that mindset.’’
McIlroy said he recently spent time with Pete Cowan, his swing coach, and feels good about his game entering this week.
“The technical and mechanical parts of it are all there,’’ he said. “It’s just a matter of going out in a U.S. Open setting and just trusting what I’ve been doing in practice, and then that gets more into the mental side of things and just being really clear and really committed in what you’re trying to do and being as free on the course as I am on the range.
“That’s the big challenge, but in terms of where everything’s heading, it’s definitely in the right direction.’’
The question has also been posed to Dustin Johnson, who remains the No. 1 ranked player in the world despite not having won since the 2020 Masters in November and has one top-10 finish since.
What’s wrong with Johnson, who has at least one victory in each of his first 13 years on the PGA Tour?
Johnson missed the cut at the 2021 Masters as he tried to defend his green jacket. He, too, missed the cut at the PGA Championship last month, and is in jeopardy of slipping from his No. 1 ranking perch this week with another poor performance.
Justin Thomas can overtake Johnson at No. 1 this week with a win and if Johnson finishes worse than a tie for 17th. Jon Rahm can overtake Johnson if he wins and Johnson finishes worse than in a two-way tie for 18th.
Johnson, as usual, sounded completely unaffected by any of his perceived struggles when he spoke Wednesday.
“If I can drive it well, I feel like I’m going to have a really good week,’’ he said. “Fairways are pretty narrow, the course is long. If I can hit the driver good, I like my chances.’’
The interesting dynamic between Johnson and McIlroy, both of whom have been at the top of the sport for the past several years, is that McIlroy could use some of Johnson’s indifference. This is not to say that Johnson doesn’t care, because he does. It’s just that Johnson never gives off a vibe like he’s pressing.
“At Augusta, I was still in the middle of a transition of stuck in between what I was trying to do in my swing, and it wasn’t a great week,’’ McIlroy said. “At Kiawah, I felt like I went into the week playing pretty well. I struggled on the left-to-right winds there. Since then, I’ve changed my driver setup a little bit, and I feel a lot more comfortable with that.
“Walking off Muirfield Village a couple Sundays ago [at the Memorial], I said to Harry [Diamond, his caddie], I felt like I played better at Memorial than I did at Quail Hollow. I finished 18th at Memorial and I won Quail Hollow. It’s golf at the end of the day, and sometimes it’s just unpredictable.’’