Rory McIl­roy is hav­ing fun again

Connecticut Post - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF JACOBS

SOUTHAMP­TON, N.Y. — Rory McIl­roy talks about golf cour­ses the way only the most se­ri­ous base­ball devo­tees dis­cuss old ball­parks. He is more than de­tailed and nu­anced. He cher­ishes them as works of art.

So here he was Wed­nes­day, in the midst of dis­sect­ing Shin­necock Hills for the 118th U.S. Open, talk­ing about how he had played 18 rounds of golf in 19 days, some for busi­ness, some only for fun. And when McIl­roy was fin­ished you were left con­vinced he had found as much plea­sure

examining the Long Is­land in­tri­ca­cies of Friar’s Head as he did de­com­press­ing with some bud­dies.

That part of it should make Nathan Grube, tour­na­ment direc­tor of the Trav­el­ers Cham­pi­onship, es­pe­cially happy. One of the game’s great course crit­ics thinks TPC River High­lands is a work of art.

When the North­ern Ir­ish­man ar­rived in Cromwell last year to play the Trav­el­ers Cham­pi­onship for the first time, McIl­roy, who is shoot­ing for his fifth ma­jor ti­tle this week, called River High­lands a hy­brid of the Fire­stone Coun­try Club in Akron and Quail Hol­low in Charlotte. He called it his sort of course. He said he loved it. It also took him un­til the fi­nal round to heat up for a 64 to fin­ish 17th.

Was he dis­suaded? Not a bit. McIl­roy will be back next week. He even told Andy Bes­sette of Trav­el­ers that he plans to win the event. Cer­tainly, this is well short of pre­dict­ing his sec­ond vic­tory at the U.S. Open, some­thing McIl­roy didn’t dare do Wed­nes­day with Amer­i­cans dom­i­nat­ing golf. Yet win­ning the 2018 Trav­el­ers, with

the world’s No. 2, 4, 6 and 9 and 13 in the field — in­clud­ing all four de­fend­ing ma­jor ti­tlists — would be no small ac­com­plish­ment.

“Rory said all the right things at our event last year, I couldn’t have scripted it any bet­ter for what I’d want a guy of his cal­iber to say,” Grube said. “But this is kind of crazy. Some­body emailed a 20-minute in­ter­view he did last fall in Europe.

“He was asked what his fa­vorite golf cour­ses were. He went through the clas­sics and then he goes, ‘I played one this year in the U.S. that I fell in love with. I could play it for years to come.’ The fact that our course made such an im­pres­sion on him even af­ter three, four months, it wouldn’t sur­prise me at all if he ended up win­ning the Trav­el­ers.”

McIl­roy — No. 6 in the world af­ter stum­bling in the fi­nal round for a fifth in the Masters and with one Tour vic­tory at the Arnold Palmer — hasn’t com­peted since an eighth at Me­mo­rial on June 3. He has spent a few weeks on Long Is­land, played Na­tional a cou­ple of times, ad­mir­ing its his­tory and ar­chi­tec­ture brought over from Scot­land. Noth­ing like a prin­ci­pal’s nose bunker to give him chills. McIl­roy ven­tured closer to New York and played Gar­den City. He was ea­ger to see what

Coore & Cren­shaw had done at Friar’s Head and de­ter­mined it was one of the best he played. Not only for the de­sign, but for the set­ting and the scenery, call­ing 14 and 15 two of the pret­ti­est golf holes he’d ever seen. Re­minded him of Cy­press Point near Mon­ter­rey, Calif. The art critic loved it.

What he doesn’t love is the USGA putting to­gether All-Star three­somes for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open that starts Thurs­day. There’s Tiger Woods-Dustin Johnson-Justin Thomas in one and McIl­roy-Phil Mick­el­son-Jor­dan Spi­eth. They will draw enor­mous gal­leries and lots of noise.

“I get what they’re do­ing, and the U.S. Open has al­ways done that,” McIl­roy said. “But at a ma­jor cham­pi­onship, I don’t think the an­tic­i­pa­tion level can get any higher any­way … I don’t know if it’s just a lit­tle bit con­trived for my lik­ing. I think the pri­mary ob­jec­tive is try­ing to get those guys in con­tention on a Sun­day.”

At 48, Mick­el­son is look­ing Fa­ther Time in the mug as he tries to com­plete the Grand Slam. He has five to­tal ma­jor vic­to­ries, but six run­ner-up fin­ishes at the U.S. Open, in­clud­ing a few epic melt­downs. He is a huge New York fa­vorite.

“It’s not as if Phil has a poor

U.S. Open record,” said McIl­roy, who at 29 has yet to win the Masters. “His U.S. Open record is in­cred­i­ble. Some­one’s played a lit­tle bet­ter on a cer­tain week or maybe he made a mis­take at the wrong time.

“If I wasn’t play­ing and purely as a fan of golf, I’d love to see Phil win this week be­cause it’s great for the game. Huge story.”

For years, McIl­roy said, he never played fun golf. Ev­ery­thing was pre­par­ing for tour­na­ments. When his dad be­came a mem­ber at Semi­nole in Jupiter Beach, Fla., that changed.

“Play­ing with him, I re­ally started to en­joy fun golf again,” McIl­roy said. “It’s a treat to be able to show up at any course in the world and get out and play. It does put you in a dif­fer­ent frame of mind. If I’ve got a shot that I need to ex­e­cute un­der pres­sure this week at Shin­necock, it’s no dif­fer­ent than play­ing that shot when I’m out with my dad or my bud­dies.”

The Shin­necock fair­ways are wider and the greens are more man­age­able than the dis­as­ter the USGA pro­duced here in 2004. The lords of Amer­i­can golf seemed bent on punishing the world’s best and in turn­ing the greens to ce­ment, es­pe­cially No. 7, they hu­mil­i­ated them­selves.

Asked in con­sid­er­ing the U.S. Open whether golfers should be tested or pun­ished, McIl­roy an­swered, “Tested, but pun­ished if you hit a bad shot.” Then he went on a de­tailed, nu­anced spiel about pre­vail­ing winds.

“I love the golf course, es­pe­cially with how con­di­tions have been, with a bit of wind and dry­ness. The way it’s play­ing re­minds me of some of the cour­ses from back home a lit­tle.

“It re­ally de­pends on the wind di­rec­tion here. It could be sev­eneight driv­ers or three-four. I think it’s been great for a lot of the guys that we’ve al­ready been able to see this course in dif­fer­ent winds. This is pri­mar­ily a sec­ond-shot golf course. The big­gest chal­lenge is be­ing dis­ci­plined.”

Ac­tu­ally, the big­gest chal­lenge are the Amer­i­cans. Johnson is No. 1 in the world. The U.S. holds all the ma­jor team ti­tles in the world right now. And with Thomas, Spi­eth, Brooks Koepka and Pa­trick Reed they hold all the four ma­jor ti­tles, too. All four will be at the Trav­el­ers.

“That’s a lot of pres­sure,” Rory McIl­roy said.

Noth­ing an out­stand­ing course can’t han­dle.

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