Finding his way

OAKMONT, Pa. – The first Avengers has this glorious exchange between the villain, Loki, and Shield agent Phil Coulson. You will remember the scene: Things are at their bleakest for the Avengers, not least because Coulson is about to die.

“You’re going to lose,” Agent Coulson says.

“Am I?” Loki says. “Your heroes are scattered. Your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?”

“You lack conviction,” Coulson says.

Rory McIlroy probably has the best A-game in golf today. That is to say: If every single player on earth played their very best for one major championship tournament – with the caveat that we have no idea what Tiger Woods’ best would even look like – Rory McIlroy would probably win. In fact, he would probably win convincingly. Yes, of course, there are others who have blinding A games. Jason Day can overpower golf courses. Dustin Johnson can make the game look ridiculously easy (and did just that in the first round of the U.S. Open). Jordan Spieth can go for stretches where he never misses a putt.

But McIlroy … it’s almost surreal how good he is when he’s right. We’ve all seen it. We saw it in his eight-shot victory at the 2011 U.S. Open. We saw it in his eight-shot victory at the 2012 PGA Championship. The guy shot 17 under to win the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, and he shot 22 under to win in Dubai and he once shot 62 in the final round to win at Quail Hollow. When he is locked in, truly locked in, he is the one guy out there who can make you think about vintage Woods or vintage Jack Nicklaus, the player who was so much better than anyone else that there was almost no point in even trying.

But, there’s the rub. What made Tiger Tiger, what made Jack Jack, were not those days when they striped the ball down the heart of every fairway and knocked down flagsticks with their approach shots and made all the putts. What made those guys so great was that they won most of the time without their A games.

“How many of your 18 major championships would you say that you were not playing well?” I asked Nicklaus.

“At least a dozen of them,” he said.

This is the part McIlroy can’t quite get. When he’s on, forget it. And when he’s off, well, forget it. Since 2010, he’s won four major championships. He’s missed the cut at four major championships. He’s finished top 10 another seven times. He’s finished 25th or worse another five times. He’s on. He’s off. He’s dazzling. He’s lost. It’s a wicked ride with Rory McIlroy.

And more and more you get this sense that, yes, he lacks conviction.

Take this week. McIlroy came to the U.S. Open at Oakmont with a vivid plan to win at one of the world’s toughest golf courses. “You have to be so disciplined,” he said.

He talked about always hitting the ball to the proper spots. “You could go a whole round here without hitting at any pin,” he said.

He talked about being conservative. “I’m an aggressive player … there’s just going to be times where I’m going to have to rein it back a little.”

He talked about how much he has learned from experience. He’s not a kid anymore. “I think with experience, you learn what a good score is on that particular day,” he says. “Or, if you’re not playing so well, [you learn] how to just grind it out and make pars and try to get it in the clubhouse at a respectable score. And I feel like just over the years I’ve learned how to do that a little bit better.”

And then, in the first round, under admittedly irritating conditions – starts and stops, weather delays, etc. – McIlroy shot a miserable 77. It was the eighth time he has shot 77 or worse at a major championship. His plan for scaling things back and hitting fairways and greens was, to put it mildly, a disaster. “I think I hit five fairways and eight greens out there,” he said despondently after the round. “Which, obviously, isn’t going to do anything.”

Then he said this: “With the way the golf course is, with it being so soft, I might just go out there in the second round and hit a lot of drivers and try to be as aggressive as I possibly can.”

OK, do you see that? Four days earlier, he went on about pulling back his aggression, reining things back, grinding it out. And then, after a bad round, he talked about cracking drivers and hoping for the best. Conviction. It seems to be the overwhelming hurdle for McIlroy.

Before the Masters began, he talked about how he eager he was to rise up to the challenge of the emerging Jordan Spieth. “It’s my job” he said of Spieth, “and Jason’s [Day] job and everyone else’s job to stop [Spieth] from dominating.” Then, when he was actually paired with the leader Spieth, he talked about how “I don’t even look at the names to the left of the leaderboard.”

A couple of years ago, he talked about wanting to insert some of Woods’ intensity into his own game. Then, shortly after that, he talked about how he did not want to be like Woods; he needed to be himself.

This is a common thing, of course, a young person trying to find what they are about. And, it’s easy to forget, McIlroy is a young man who just turned 27. Still: Golf is a game of conviction. It is a game of belief. Ask anyone: One of the things that made Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Woods and others the very best in the world is that they believed it more deeply than anyone else. They felt destined to win because, hey, seriously, who could beat them?

But where do you get that sort of conviction? How do you build it? After the miserable first round, McIlroy went out to the driving range and worked on his swing for a long time.

“I think for me,” he says, “the toughest thing is just trying to stay positive and not get too down on myself and try to go out there … and try to play well and make it into the weekend. Yeah, I think right now I’m just trying to stay as positive as I can.”

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