Rory McIlroy insisted on drawing positives from his unscheduled stop-off in Memphis for the FedEx St Jude Classic. He claimed he will head to the US Open with high hopes but it’s more likely that contending and “failing” at TPC Southwind will stand to him, not at The Olympic Club this week, but on another pressure laden afternoon in the near future.
McIlroy hooked his three-wood tee shot into the water at the 18th when tied for the lead and three putted for his first double bogey of the week to shoot 69 finish seventh behind Dustin Johnson.
He didn’t capture his fourth PGA Tour win or head to San Francisco for his US Open defence with another piece of silverware on the mantelpiece. In fact, while no-one made more birdies at the world No 1 at TPC Southwind, McIlroy also had 14 bogeys and a double in four rounds.
That’s hardly the kind of play that will strike fear into the hearts of the USGA, who appear determined to make sure there will be no repeat McIlroy’s record-setting 16 under par winning score at Congressional last year when the elite tees it up at The Olympic Club on Thursday.
McIlroy argued that he accomplished his mission in Tennessee by bouncing back from three successive missed cuts and getting into mix. The truth is that must now play his fifth event in the space of six weeks with a game that is high on spectacle and low on the grinding consistency necessary to win a US Open on a punishing course where the smallest mistakes will be magnified.
“You know, overall it’s been a decent week,” McIlroy said. “Looking forward to getting to San Francisco and I can take a lot from this week into next week.”
He refused to accept that he needed to win to justify his decision to add Memphis to his schedule. And he’s right.
“No, definitely not,” he said. “I wanted to come here this week just to get some competitive rounds. I said in the early part of the week, if I got into contention, that was great. I did that. I had a real good chance to win the golf tournament. I didn’t do that. I’m happy I came here, and I feel like I’m well prepared going into the US Open.”
Barring a case of fatigue or dehydration, McIlroy’s performance in Memphis will have little bearing on his US Open week. If he believes he has sorted out the technical issues that bugged him at Sawgrass, Wentworth and Muirfield Village, we must take him at his word. Time will tell if he has the confidence or the energy to contend.
What was truly impressive about his week in Memphis was the way he battled his way into a share of the lead with a clutch 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th and then tried to play the “right” shot at the last.
It didn’t come off but while his hopes sank in a watery grave, McIlroy can take pride from the fact that he put his neck on the line, as Padraig Harrington (13th in Memphis after a 69) likes to say.
It would have been easy to poke something down the right side and perhaps finish in the rough but McIlroy took on the shot regardless of the pressure.
When he looks back at his 12 months as US Open champion, he will realise how much he has learnt. Memphis was just another small lesson in what will be a long career of learning. The US Open may pose deeper questions.