PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – After methodically climbing the giant leaderboards lining Pebble Beach with one crisp, precise shot at time, Rory McIlroy nearly watched it all disappear in less time than it takes to snag an $18 crab-cake sandwich from one of the nearby concession stands.
McIlroy entered this week brimming with confidence after his Canadian Open win, and at no point has he seemed in jeopardy of extending his missed cut streak at the U.S. Open to four years in a row. He was steady Friday afternoon, cobbling together three birdies and a series of pars to get within a shot of leader Justin Rose.
But then an errant approach at the 13th led to his first bogey of the day, and despite standing in the middle of the 14th fairway with wedge in hand he left with a double bogey. Suddenly he was back to 3 under for the week and tumbling toward the pack, his chances of a fifth major title going out toward Stillwater Cove with the tide.
“To do all that hard work over the first 12 holes, and then to lose it in a few minutes, two holes in 13 and 14, was disappointing,” McIlroy said.
Teeing off in the late wave Friday, McIlroy watched some of the early coverage on TV and saw Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth both struggle with the fickle, sloping green on the par-5 14th. But when it was his turn to try to find the surface, he fared no better, spinning his approach from 110 yards off the green before leaving an ambitious flop shot attempt in the greenside bunker.
In the short walk to the 15th green, McIlroy set a new goal: get back the strokes he had just forfeited before the day was done. He didn’t quite get there, playing his final four holes in 2 under, but bounce-back birdies on Nos. 15 and 16 essentially salvaged his title chances, the latter coming from 17 feet in what the Ulsterman described as “sort of a bonus.”
McIlroy still faces a four-shot deficit to overnight leader Gary Woodland after shooting rounds of 68-69, and he’s two adrift of Rose. But should he remain in contention over the weekend, he’ll likely point back to those two circles on his second-round scorecard as a turning point.
“I sort of compounded an error with another error, which you never really want to do. But I bounced back well,” McIlroy said. “Really happy with my position going into the weekend.”
McIlroy’s 61 in Ontario was still the talk of the town early in the week at Pebble, another reminder of just how high his ceiling can extend. That momentum has carried over into this week’s major venue, a not-too-dissimilar layout to the one he torched north of the border last week. McIlroy is fourth in total strokes gained and sixth in strokes gained: putting at the halfway point.
“I think it’s clear, conclusive proof of what he said this year, right? He’s definitely come up with a different attitude,” said playing competitor Jon Rahm, who had a front-row seat for McIlroy’s back-nine turnaround. “He knows what he’s capable of, and he’s just rolling it. He’s making a lot of good putts. If he keeps putting well, and organizes his round, he’s going to be a tough guy to beat.”
It’s been nearly five years since McIlroy lifted the Wanamaker Trophy at Valhalla, and since then he’s had several realistic chances to add major title No. 5. There was the Masters last year when he couldn’t keep pace with Patrick Reed, and McIlroy brought up last year’s Open at Carnoustie where he tied for second.
But this one feels, at the moment, a bit different, as a player with a penchant for fueling long stretches by confidence alone is once again brimming with optimism.
“Coming off the back of a win last week, and having another win this year as well (at The Players), and just the consistency that I’ve shown, it’s the best I’ve felt about my game in a while for sure,” McIlroy said.
There’s still plenty of work ahead, as the USGA will likely ensure that this famed layout will only increase in difficulty over the next two days. The players around him on the leaderboard, including two-time defending champ Brooks Koepka at 4 under, have no plans to cede the trophy in his direction.
But after 36 holes he’s got a chance, which is the one thing players most covet at this stage of the proceedings. And he’s got a turbulent, colorful scorecard to thank for it, having narrowly escaped a meltdown that might have torpedoed a lesser player.
“He’s just, he’s Rory McIlroy,” Rahm said. “Just remember how he won the PGA for the second time (in 2014), making an incredible comeback. He’s capable sometimes of bad stuff, like everybody, but he’s capable of making a lot of birdies, too.”