Rory comes roaring out at the AT&T
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Art Spander in AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, articles, golf

By Art Spander

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — This isn’t football. You don’t try to win one for the Gipper in golf. The game is one of control, of direction. Sometimes the more you practice, or play, the worse you perform.

Something else about big-time golf: It’s lonely. There are no teammates to lend support, physical — that skulled wedge can’t be saved by, say, a diving catch — or mental. There seem to be as many sports psychologists around the Tour as there are teaching pros.

So the premise posited by Jason Day, who’s had his own troubles, that Rory McIlroy lacks desire is a thought based on a premise as judged by a competitor.

“The biggest thing for Rory,” said Day, along with McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and suddenly Jon Rahm, one of golf’s best, “is the desire part. How much does he really want it? Because he has the tools to be Tigeresque.”

As in Tiger Woods, who was one-of-a-kind.

McIlroy, 28, because of a rib injury, and perhaps the distraction of his marriage — there’s life out there beyond the tee boxes — didn’t win a tournament in 2017. On the PGA Tour. On the European Tour. Tumbled in the World Golf Rankings. He was more mystery than history.

But it’s a new year, and McIlroy has a new outlook. On Thursday he shot a 68, four under par, at Spyglass Hill, in the opening round of the historic AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. That left him three shots behind Kevin Streelman, who shot his seven-under 65 at Spyglass and Beau Hossler, who shot his at Pebble Beach.

It was a glorious day on the Monterey Peninsula, wind light, skies blue, golf impressive.

“I was pleased,” said McIlroy. “A couple of really good weeks in the Middle East. But I’m healthy and able to practice. I’m able to do everything I want to do, so I feel good. I’m in a really good frame of mind, and that helps, too.”

Of course. It’s hard enough to challenge the world’s courses, and some of the world’s finest golfers, if you’re not thinking about the job at hand. As Sam Snead once said to Ted Williams when they were debating the relative difficulty of golf vs. baseball, “We have to play our foul balls.”

McIlroy, partnering with his father, Gerry, kept most of his shots on the fairways. “It was awesome,” said Rory. “It was great being out there with him.”

“A couple of messy holes coming in,” said Rory. “I recovered well. In the end I made a good bogey on 16, a great par on 17. It was nice to finish with a birdie on 18.”

Phil Mickelson, now 47, was the other pro in the foursome, shooting a three-under 69. The differential in ages between Rory and Phil is reason that golf is such an appealing game — 19 years — but on Thursday their rounds differed by only one stroke. As Raymond Floyd, a multiple majors winner, told us, “The golf ball doesn’t know how old you are.”

But it does know how effective your swing is. And your putting is. You can be young or old, intense or relaxed. The only thing that matters is how many strokes you take.

A year ago, McIlroy was taking more than he wanted. But in January, in tournaments at Abu Dhabi and Dubai, part of the early events of the European Tour, McIlroy had a second and a third. His confidence was up. His health was back.

“I haven’t played a lot over the past 18 months for various reasons,” he said. “I was sort of ready to call it quits for the year after the Dunhill (in October). I was sort of dejected and wanting to get away from it all.

“Now I’m rejuvenated and optimistic. Now there’s nothing in my way. There’s nothing stopping me from playing a full schedule.”

There doesn't seem to be any lack of desire, especially when McIlroy insists, “I want to be one of the best players to ever have played the game. I have a great opportunity over the next 10, 12 years to play great golf and leave my mark on the game.”

Or, really, to embellish the mark he’s already left.

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