PINEHURST — There was a breakup, but there has been no breakdown.
Rory McIlroy enters this U.S. Open less than a month removed from breaking off his engagement with Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, which he did just a few days after the two sent out wedding invitations.
But McIlroy’s play has not suffered a bit. Only four days after making that engagement cancellation public, he won the flagship event on the European Tour. And the 25-year-old Northern Irishman is so confident in his game right now that he said Wednesday he believes winning two of the season’s final three majors is a possibility for him.
“I think it’s definitely a reasonable goal,” McIlroy said.
That would be an extraordinary thing, but McIlroy has done plenty of those before. He won the 2011 U.S. Open by a stunning eight shots in a performance worthy of Tiger Woods in his prime. He hit a 405-yard drive during competition – as a 15-year-old. He has been ranked No. 1 in the world (although he has dropped to No. 6).
As thin as a greyhound, McIlroy generates the same sort of speed with his clubs that tennis’ Rafael Nadal does with his forehand. He can make golf look easy when he’s playing well, and he has been playing well. McIlroy already has had 10 top-10 finishes during 2014 if you combine his work in the U.S. and Europe.
“With the way I’ve been playing and how I feel my game is, I’m one of the favorites coming in here,” he said matter-of-factly.
With McIlroy, Friday at Pinehurst No. 2 will be key. He hasn’t won on the PGA Tour this year in large part because he often follows a blazing first round with a beastly second.
In Charlotte at the Wells Fargo Championship, McIlroy went 69-76. At the Masters, it was 71-77. At Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament, it was 63-78.
McIlroy has adopted Nicklaus as one of his mentors, and the two recently met for two hours at Nicklaus’ Florida office. Growled the Golden Bear: “How … can you shoot 63 and 78?”
McIlroy said he didn’t know, but he theorized Wednesday: “I may be thinking too much about my score. I’m up near the leader board and I might be trying to push too much and keep it going.” He said Nicklaus counseled him that it was OK to make changes during the middle of a round if necessary, and McIlroy added that “hopefully some of those little nuggets of wisdom that he passed on to me might help this week.”
McIlroy doesn’t need a lot of help. Since the breakup with Wozniacki, he has gotten his only win of the season and has flirted with the lead constantly. He said he is “burying his head” in golf and “finding my love for the game again.”
As for his personal life, McIlroy is trying to keep it more personal. He mostly has sworn off social media for a while and is trying to avoid checking Twitter on his phone.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I just want to live my life like a normal 25-year-old. I know that’s sometimes hard to do because of the public spotlight that I’m under. … I’m no different than any other 25-year-old in the world. I want to go out and see my friends, have some fun.”
That’s all well and good, but McIlroy knows in his heart he’s a lot different from most 25-year-olds. And he wants to be. He is setting big goals for himself in golf – first of all, he wants to get back to No. 1. And sometimes, when he unleashes that gorgeous swing, every one of them seems within reach.
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler