OAKMONT, Pa. — Rory McIlroy walked on the driving range, carrying his own bag. He plopped it down, with teacher Michael Bannon trailing closely.
To McIlroy’s left was Bryson DeChambeau. The Mad Scientist is on the absolute far left of the range, his Flightscope launch monitor behind his ball, hooked up to a laptop on the ground. After each swing, DeChambeau, not wearing the driving cap he dubs his Superman cape, stares at the screen of numbers, looking for answers.
On the Ulsterman’s right, defending champion Jordan Spieth was wrapping up a practice session. Ear buds in the whole way, Spieth, who wrapped up a 2-over 72 on Friday morning, was smashing driver after driver. Perhaps, knowing Oakmont’s fairways might be this soft one day longer, he was looking for confidence off the tee.
The crowd, even with those three on the range simultaneously, was sparse — that is, until word seemed to spread that the Stripe Show was about to begin. At first, it’s just some stragglers, mostly with marker-stained U.S. Open flags in hand, looking for an autograph. As time passes, more oglers, looking for some kind of inspiration, walk up to the guard rail separating the fans from greatness. Some fans weary of walking took their seats in the creaky grandstands situated behind the firing line, looking for their glimpse of perfection.
That’s not what’s unfolding.
McIlroy is searching for something and struggling to find it.
He digs into a pro’s First Aid kit, needing a Band-Aid and quickly. Bannon demonstrates for McIlroy what he wants his pupil to do, taking the clubhead back slightly more outward, getting into a steeper position at the top and then letting McIlroy’s magical downswing do the rest. That seems to illustrate the point, with McIlroy rehearsing just the takeaway, slightly hooding the clubface, then pulling off the full swing at 100 percent gusto.
On the shots that go well, McIlroy twirls his club in signature fashion. After the ones that don’t, his arms flail in all directions afterward — sometimes stunned that the ball didn’t co-operate, others in exaggerated mimicry of what he is trying to fix.
Then McIlroy tries to make one of his alignment sticks into an extension of his club. It’s a modern drill, extending the butt-end of the club with the sticks so that it points back toward the ball near the top of the backswing. McIlroy can’t — and wouldn’t anyway — hit the ball holding both the stick and the club, but the practice swings drive home the point.
Meanwhile, in strut Lee Westwood and Jon Rahm, co-existing next to each other despite their very different statures and golf swings. Rahm, a world No. 1 amateur, leads the field in driving distance. Westwood, revived at 43, is in early contention in this scattershot championship. Both are comfortably stripping one ball after another, comfortable in their approach when their tournament resumes on Saturday.
McIlroy continues to toil.
To the fans watching him, they hear the sound at impact and see the gorgeous ball flight. Most have to figure McIlroy is a perfectionist, unsatisfied by what most would happily take for the rest of their lives.
McIlroy said after finishing off an opening 7-over 77 that he was uncomfortable with his swing.
“Honestly, I’ve been struggling with my swing, even the practice rounds a little bit,” he said. “I know what I’m doing, but it’s hard to change it out there. It’s been hard to give it any sort of time this week to work on it, especially I knew, whenever I got off the course last night, I knew, and it was just hard to work on anything.”
Like a metal detector at the beach, the four-time major winner knows what he was looking for, but he still isn’t finding it.
So, McIlroy turns to a classic drill, taking a golf glove and putting it under his left arm, encouraging a tighter shoulder turn and, potentially, a steeper takeaway. Ball after ball. Again and again. He’s getting closer, working through the bag. He hits majestically high long irons, many with a baby cut that land softly on the hardening Oakmont greens. If he’s going to play aggressively on Saturday to make the weekend, he’ll need confidence with that shot.
“I don’t need to swing perfect, but I just need to be able to play one shot and know that I know where it’s going to start and I know where it’s going to finish and just try to go from there,” he said.
As the sun starts to make its trek behind the Allegheny Mountains, the crowd swells to more than a hundred fans. Westwood had left, his girlfriend-slash-caddie close. Rahm and his team had left the range to practice in the short-game area and then came back. DeChambeau continued to grind away, earphones on and a club attached to his forehead through each cut.
McIlroy seems to grow more aware of the crowd behind him, the media watching and the television crews shooting his passion in not so stealth fashion.
Fans leave and others replace them, either mesmerized by the craft or disappointed they didn’t get an autograph. But they get a great look at the hard work of a major champion with a 16-hour deadline to get his game going well enough to find a spot in the weekend field and an off-chance of winning a fifth major.
Or, as McIlroy described it earlier: “I might come out here later this afternoon and work on it a little bit and see if I can just hit it a little bit better.”