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For a player who has not won a major in eight years, Rory McIlroy could hardly be in a better position heading into the 122nd US Open.
Victory in the RBC Canadian Open on Sunday was the 21st PGA Tour win of McIlroy’s career and the first time he had successfully defended a title, albeit at a different course and three years apart due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
That lifted McIlroy up to third in the world rankings, his highest position since August 2020, and comes on the back of a runners-up finish in the Masters following a closing 64 and a tie for eighth in the US PGA.
McIlroy concedes the latter was a missed opportunity after his opening 65 at Southern Hills and a final-round charge which fizzled out, but the 33-year-old was understandably in buoyant mood at Brookline, scene of amateur Francis Ouimet’s famous US Open triumph in 1913.
“It certainly puts a pep in your step. It gives you a lot of confidence,” McIlroy, who is the last player (in 2014) to win on the PGA Tour and claim a major the following week, said of his victory in Ontario.
“Going into last week, even coming off Memorial where I didn’t have my best week, I still knew my game was there. I still knew that I was playing well (but) I think it was the fashion in which I won last week that gave me the most pride.
“(I) got a lead early in the back nine. Lost that lead. Was tied with two holes to go, and then I showed some really good resilience and birdied the last two holes to get the job done.
“I did the same thing in 2019 going into the US Open at Pebble Beach and played pretty well there.
“I didn’t play well enough to live with Gary (Woodland) that week, but I feel everything is certainly trending in the right direction, and I’m happy with where my game is at.”
McIlroy romped to an eight-shot victory in the 2011 US Open at Congressional, claiming his first major title with a dominant display rendered even more remarkable by the fact that it came just two months after his painful collapse in the Masters.
The then 22-year-old became the youngest US Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923 and the youngest major winner since Tiger Woods triumphed at Augusta National in 1997, breaking a host of scoring records on the way.
Yet although further major titles followed in the US PGA Championship (2012, 2014) and Open Championship (2014), McIlroy never contended in the US Open before missing the cut for three years running from 2016, his chances effectively ended by first rounds of 77, 78 and 80.
Since then, however, McIlroy has finished ninth, eighth and seventh and liked what he saw of Brookline on his first nine holes of practice on Monday.
“I think the start of my career was probably more feast-or-famine in the majors,” he added. “I would get hot and win or I would miss the cut by 10.
“A little more consistency going on. But, again, that doesn’t bring with it the glory that the wins do. I’m getting back there, though.
“My last two showings in major championships have been pretty good. That run at Augusta and then the start at Southern Hills was a very welcome one considering the starts I’ve had previously in major championships.
“So I’m getting back to a place where I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with my game and a lot more comfortable in the biggest and toughest tests in the world.
“I think my game is now at a place where I feel confident going to these golf courses that are set up more difficult than everyday tour events and knowing that I have the game and the mentality to succeed on them.”
McIlroy confirmed that regular caddie Harry Diamond would be back on his bag at Brookline after missing the Canadian Open to attend the birth of his second child.
Former Ulster rugby professional Niall O’Connor stood in for Diamond for the second time and McIlroy said: “Niall and I’s run has come to an end at this point. Pretty good record. Had a fourth in Dubai and a first in Canada.
“If I ever need someone to jump in for Harry, I’ve got a pretty good substitute there.”