PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Without a great start, there have been no happy endings in major championships for Rory McIlroy. In all four of his victories at golf’s highest level, the Northern Irishman has been at least five under par after 18 holes. But in the 17 Grand Slam events in which he has participated since his last triumph at the 2014 PGA Championship, McIlroy has broken 70 in the opening round on only three occasions—all 69s. Perhaps even more relevantly as the 2011 U.S. Open winner prepares for what will be his 11th appearance in America’s national championship, McIlroy last made the cut in 2015.
So, while much attention has long been paid to the World No. 3’s sometime stumbling over the final 18 holes of tournaments, it can be argued that less-than stellar play three days earlier has been the bigger key to almost five years of major-championship frustration. Mind you, this fact is not haunting the 30-year-old. In McIlroy’s ever-restless mind, recent success clearly outweighs past setbacks. But he is certainly aware of this obvious trend in his performances, all the more so after a chat with Johnny Miller.
At the USGA Champions Dinner on Tuesday evening, Miller, the memorable winner at Oakmont in 1973, was quick to underline just how crucial Thursday morning can be in any 72-hole event. A solid start to proceedings has forever been a vital component in golf at the highest level.
“Johnny told me to look at the history of major championships,” said McIlroy, who tees off the 10th hole at 7:51 a.m. local time on Thursday. “That first round is so important. And I agree. My first rounds at Augusta  and Bethpage  this year put me a little bit behind the eight ball. And it’s hard to catch up. Especially as major championships are played on the toughest courses. The temptation is to chase and it’s hard to do that.
“In the majors I’ve won, I started really well with rounds in the mid-60s. And that’s sort of what’s held me back a little bit [in the others]. If I can take the freedom that I played with on Saturday and Sunday last week [when he shot 64-61 to win the Canadian Open by seven shots] and get off to a good start here, I’ll hopefully be right in the tournament from the get-go and stay there. That’s what is wonderful about golf, whether you win or lose. You go to the next week and it’s sort of forgotten about. You start again. You can’t dwell on success or failure. You keep looking forward.”
Moving from the philosophical to the practical, McIlroy revealed that he will probably use his driver—widely acknowledged as the most powerful weapon in his formidable arsenal—on only five occasions each day. Apart from the second, ninth, 10th and the two par 5s on the back nine (14th and 18th), the longest club in his bag will be staying there.
“I just don’t think it’s worth it,” he said. “I’d much rather be in the fairway hitting a 7-iron in than trying to hit a driver right up there. The greens are so tricky and so small. So if you hit into the middle of them all, you’re going to have decent birdie putts anyway. This week is all about patience and just giving yourself looks and chances, playing from the fairway. If you go out and you try to overpower this course, it can bite you pretty quickly.”
You never know though. Given the current level of his confidence and the huge advantage his best driving could bring on a Pebble Beach course measuring only 7,075 yards, the temptation to employ an undoubted strength will be almost ever-present. Despite his claims of patience, McIlroy certainly wasn’t dismissing the notion that a low score is out there.
“I can see someone shooting in the 65, 66 range,” he said. “Pars are never going to be a bad score at a U.S. Open, but you’ve got wedge into one, wedge into three, wedge into four. Then there is the par-5 sixth. And the seventh is only 110 yards. You’ve got so many wedges and opportunities to make birdies. I’m not going to chase every pin, but at the same time this course does offer opportunities to make birdies.
“If you are playing well, you don’t need to settle for pars. You can go out there and get after it. That’s what I did at Congressional [where he shot 16 under par in 2011]. The U.S. Open doesn’t have to be just grind out your pars. If you feel like you can make birdies, go out and get after it.”
That clear statement of intent is understandable for a man at the top of his game. And sounds like it might just result in the sort of start that could lead to a fifth major title.