PINEHURST, N.C. – The one thing Rory McIlroy won’t lack heading into this U.S. Open is advice. In the few weeks since his breakup with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, only some of it has been worth much.
Gary Player told him to lay low. Jack Nicklaus told him not to be afraid to change the way he plays, even in the middle of a round. Smartly, he only followed up with one of them.
“Do you just ring him up,” a reporter asked about McIlroy’s budding relationship with Nicklaus, “and say, `I’m popping in?'”
“I don’t ring him up,” McIlroy chuckled, “I ring his secretary up and say, `I’d like to schedule a meeting, please.’ But it’s been great to spend some time with him. I feel like I’ve got a really good rapport.”
The two had lunch in Florida a week after the Memorial, the PGA Tour stop where Nicklaus plays the gracious host but isn’t shy about asking tough questions. Not about relationships, mind you, unless you count questions about where to slot the club at the top of the backswing.
“He said to me, he goes, `How the hell can you shoot 63 (in the first round) and then 78 (in the second)?'” McIlroy recalled. “I said, `I wasn’t meaning to, Jack. I’m trying not to.'”
That began a conversation between the two on the subject of trust. Nicklaus told him the moment he sensed his swing was sliding off the rails in that second round, he would have made a change “right then and there.”
“The mental strength to be able to do that,” McIlroy paused, still marveling at the idea.
“Hopefully,” he added a moment later, “some of those little nuggets of wisdom that he passed on to me might help this week.”
Success came so fast for the 25-year-old Northern Irishman it was easy to assume he’d mastered most of golf’s lessons. But it took an old soul like Nicklaus to point out where some of the big gaps remained.
When McIlroy wins, he usually wins big, running away from the field the way he did at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional. What he has yet to prove is whether he has the patience and toughness to grind out victories, a trait that served Nicklaus and Tiger Woods well over decades. If nothing else, the back-and-forth with Nicklaus has put the idea in his head.
“It’s going to be a test of patience,” McIlroy said about Pinehurst No. 2. “And I think I am better equipped than I was a few years ago. The U.S. Open I won was a very … was abnormal. It was wet. It was low scoring. I haven’t won a tournament whenever it’s been like this. That’s why I’m relishing the challenge.
“It’s conditions that I haven’t won in before and I’d love to be able to prove to myself, but also prove to other people that I can win in different conditions. It’s a great opportunity to do that this week.”
While Nicklaus will be McIlroy’s model this week, he hasn’t ignored Player’s advice altogether. In the wake of his very public breakup with Wozniacki, he has lowered his social media profile and already won once. He concedes that balancing his public life he has with the private one he wants is an act he’s still working on.
“It’s nice when you get out on the golf course because you’ve got five hours of you’re just out there with your clubs, with your caddie, trying to shoot the best score possible,” McIlroy said. “That’s the approach that I’m sort of adopting from now until whenever.”
The conversation with Nicklaus appears to be taking hold. Much harder to learn will be the desire that catapulted Nicklaus to 18 major victories – the stubborn pride that made him back off a 4-footer on the last hole of a tournament he wasn’t going to win even in the final years of his career, because it mattered to him to shoot 77 instead of 78.
“Golf has sort of been a nice release for me the past few weeks. I just want to try to keep focused on that,” McIlroy said.