McIlroy's links fortunes improve after Scottish 64

There are very few definitive statements ever made in opening-round journeys on the golf course, and even fewer made in the opening round of a tournament which is essentially viewed as a preview to an upcoming major championship.

So let’s not be too quick in declaring that Rory McIlroy’s course-record 7-under 64 at the Scottish Open on Thursday should sound the alarms. Let’s not use this singular example as proof that he’s changed public perception of his game. Let’s not instantly insist that he’s figured out links golf and windy conditions and should now be considered the man to beat at next week’s Open Championship.

But it sure is a step in the right direction.

If there can be a knock on a 25-year-old two-time major winner with 10 other professional victories already on his resume, it’s that McIlroy curiously hasn’t played his best golf in conditions that would seemingly be most fitting for someone who grew up learning the game in Northern Ireland.

There was that opening-round 63 which led to a share of third place when the Open was held at St. Andrews four years ago, but that week hardly featured the worst weather Scotland has to offer. His results in the year’s third major have been otherwise pedestrian: He was T-47 in 2009; T-25 in 2011; T-60 in 2012; and missed the cut last year.

McIlroy drives the 436-yard, par-4 13th in Round 1

Perhaps he’s taken a cue from Phil Mickelson.

Last year, Mickelson – a notoriously unsuccessful links golfer – not only played the Scottish Open, but won, and then used that as a springboard to claiming the claret jug one week later.

Afterward, Mickelson spoke about embracing links golf and learning to love it, rather than becoming increasingly frustrated by it.

Prior to this week’s edition of the Scottish – McIlroy’s first appearance at the event in five years – he largely echoed those sentiments.

“You’ve got to relish the challenge,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “I’m trying to adopt more of that mindset, especially for these couple of weeks a year. It’s not like I haven’t played well on links courses before and in links conditions. Just getting back to that. And I think the more you play, the more sort of used to it you are, because back when I was 15, 16, 17, playing links golf all the time, it wasn’t anything to put your wet gear on and play, where now, we’re so spoiled playing in great conditions. 

“Yeah, it’s nice to get back and play in some conditions like this.”

There is no corollary that exists which can tell us the impact of a positive attitude on a scorecard. It can’t be judged like fairways hit or greens in regulation or total putts.

It’s safe to say, though, that without viewing “the challenge” through that prism, McIlroy wouldn’t have set the Royal Aberdeen course record with eight birdies (including six in a seven-hole span) against just a single bogey in what can best be described as perfectly Scottish conditions.

After the round, McIlroy was beaming about the performance – not only for what it meant, but for what it could mean going forward.

“This morning, in these blustery conditions, I thought anything in the 60s was going to be a good score, so to shoot anything better than that is very pleasing,” he explained. “Just the way I controlled my ball flight out there, I was really pleased with. That’s a real key for me to play well on links courses and I was able to do that really well.”

There’s a lesson in here not only for McIlroy and other competitors, but those who pass judgment on them, too: Just because a player hasn’t accomplished something in the past, that doesn’t mean he can’t accomplish it going forward.

Mickelson proved that to us with his back-to-back links golf titles last year. McIlroy would love to emulate that specific feat.

Let’s not declare that such success is imminent based solely on an impressive opening round, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.

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