How a pep talk helped Rory McIlroy overcome disastrous front nine

SOUTHPORT, England -- Rory McIlroy had no confidence. He was nervous, even a bit timid. He admitted it later -- that he started his opening round of The Open Championship unsure of himself and unsure of his game. After missing the cut in three of his past four starts, maybe that was to be expected.

He bogeyed the opening hole -- hardly a sin, considering how difficult it played Thursday -- then bogeyed three of the next four. He then received an earful from caddie J.P. Fitzgerald on the sixth tee.

"You're Rory McIlroy," Fitzgerald told him, with maybe a few more colorful words included. "What are you doing?"

At the time, McIlroy simply mumbled, "Whatever," but after the round, following a roller-coaster day with massive ebbs and flows, he credited that pep talk for his eventual turnaround.

"It definitely helped," McIlroy admitted after a topsy-turvy 1-over 71. "It kept me positive, so he did a great job."

That help, though, wasn't immediate. McIlroy bogeyed the sixth, as well, his mistakes leading to misfortune, misfortune leading to more mistakes. He failed to make a birdie on the front-nine and was already 10 strokes off the lead after espousing optimism one day earlier.

If the pep talk aided his mindset, a par putt on the eighth hole was crucial for his momentum.

"There's a big difference between 5 over par and 6 over," he'd later explain. "That was big."

Momentum savers to keep from posting a front-nine score in the 40s -- he turned in 5-over 39 -- aren't what elite players usually have in mind at major championships, but in McIlroy's case it proved to be vital.

After a front nine during which he never sniffed birdie, he posted a back-nine, bogey-free 4-under 32 to give that previous optimism a reason to return.

"I could be standing here and hit 18 greens and shot 1 over and missed every putt and feel terrible," McIlroy explained. "But because of the way I started, I actually feel really positive."

In fact, he likened it to another event that worked out pretty well for him.

"It's a bit like Ryder Cup at Medinah in '12; we're 10-6 down on Saturday night, but we feel like we were right in with a chance because we won the last two points," he recalled about Europe's come-from-behind win the next day. "Even though there's a lot of golf left, in other circumstances it might have been a disappointing day. But just with the way I finished, I feel really good about it."

After a two-putt birdie on the par-5 17th, McIlroy holed a 30-footer for birdie on the final hole, one that was punctuated by an enthusiastic fist pump.

It left him just a half-dozen strokes shy of tri-leaders Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar, but with an early Friday tee time and the worst weather expected later in the day, he's enjoying a renewed sense of confidence.

"I still feel I'm in the golf tournament," he said. "If I can go out and play a good quality round of golf in the morning and try to get in the clubhouse somewhere around even par, under par, I'll still be around for the weekend."

He might even do better than just be around.

McIlroy has a knack for easing his way into events and improving his play as he continues. A victory would recall a performance by Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters, when he opened with a birdie-free, front-nine 40 only to triumph three days later.

If it happens, even if he just climbs back into contention, McIlroy will still be crediting a pep talk and a par saver, two essentials in turning around his opening round.