McIlroy focuses on frame of mind

ABERDEEN, Scotland -- Rory McIlroy's Northern Ireland home is not far from one of the finest links in the world. He grew up frequently playing that style of golf in various amateur competitions, and he happens to hold the course record at the Home of Golf, generally regarded among the great links layouts.

But McIlroy is as much a fan of this kind of golf as he is the Irish tabloids that gossip about his personal life.

He might not disdain it, sometimes thrives at it, but often becomes frustrated just the same.

"I'm going to make it my favorite style for two weeks a year," McIlroy said to laughter Thursday after opening the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open with a 7-under-par 64. "I wouldn't say it's my natural game. My natural game is to stand up and hit it hard and have a high ball flight.

"That's just not conducive to playing well here, unless you get a flat, calm day, which you rarely get in these parts."

McIlroy's home is part of the United Kingdom -- although he'll compete for Ireland in the Olympics -- but when it comes to the way he plays, he's all American.

Hitting towering tee shots that soar through the air and getting approach shots up into the clouds in an effort to land them softly is the hallmark of the way golf is played in the United States.

But when you come to a place like Royal Aberdeen, site of this week's Scottish Open, or Royal Liverpool, where the Open Championship will be played next week, that rarely works.

Perhaps on a warm, windless day, a player of McIlroy's caliber could stand on a tee and fire away. But good luck getting balls to stop on greens with those high approach shots.

The definition of links golf is sand-based surfaces near the sea. Such courses in this part of the world drain exceptionally well, to the point that tournaments are rarely stopped due to weather conditions. They keep playing because there is no lightning, and the courses absorb water well and remain playable.

And that means the courses are firm, especially so when the wind blows. Hence, low trajectory shots, approaches and pitches that run closer to the ground, and sometimes a matter of good fortune, go a long way. A shot fired at the flagstick? It usually bounces over the green.

At age 17, McIlroy set the course record of 61 at Royal Portrush near his childhood home in Northern Ireland, where the Open was played for its one and only time outside of Great Britain in 1951. Royal Portrush was recently invited to host another Open, likely in 2019.

Four years ago at St. Andrews, the Home of Golf, McIlroy began the Open with a record 63 on the Old Course. He tied for third that year, but finished well back of winner Louis Oosthuizen. It is McIlroy's only top-10 in the championship that has generally left him flummoxed.

The best example occurred in the 2011 Open at Royal St. George's; coming off his dominant U.S. Open victory, McIlroy managed just a tie for 25th and complained about the conditions.

"I'm not a fan of golf tournaments that the outcome is predicted so much by the weather," he said then. "It's not my sort of golf. ... I'm looking forward to getting back to America, playing in Akron [the Bridgestone Invitational], and obviously the PGA [Championship] ... and getting back into some nice conditions."

McIlroy's honesty caused him some grief, and made more than a few wonder if he was simply a fair-weather player who was unwilling to adapt.

Yet there is a long list of players who failed to embrace golf as it was first played. Scott Hoch once famously referred to the Old Course as "a mess" and skipped the Open. Tom Watson won in his first attempt and was in the midst of winning his third Open before realizing that he had the wrong approach.

"I won two Opens in the first four Opens I played not really liking the links style," Watson said. "At one point I had to have a talk with myself, because I had a negative attitude. Attitude has a lot to do with playing that kind of golf."

Watson went on to win five Opens and nearly a sixth five years ago at Turnberry.

Then there is Phil Mickelson, who for the bulk of his career was a nonfactor at the Open. It took him more than a decade to start to figure out how best to play. Now he loves it and looks for other places to play. The other day it was at Donald Trump's new course just down the road from Royal Aberdeen. Mickelson also has plans to check out Cruden Bay, another excellent links course originally designed by Old Tom Morris -- who laid out the Old Course.

"The key to playing links golf, from tee to green, is being able to get the ball not just low, but low without spin," said Mickelson, who shot an opening-round 68 on Thursday. "And that's what I was struggling with and why I was always fighting it. I would swing hard. I would put more spin on it and the wind would have a greater effect. ... Now I'm not fighting it."

At the same Open where McIlroy complained about the weather in 2011, Mickelson got into contention -- he wore gloves on both hands during a final-round deluge -- and finished second to Darren Clarke.

Last year, Mickelson won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart and followed that up with an Open title at Muirfield. Given where he had been with his game and links golf, winning a Claret Jug ranks among his greatest achievements.

The good news for McIlroy is that he seems to have figured this out at an early age. At 25, he has plenty of chances to win the Open. And recognizing that links golf is played just a few times a year, he seems to have embraced the idea that it is best to enjoy this unique brand of golf rather than curse it.

"You've got to relish the challenge," he said. "I'm trying to adopt more of that mindset, especially for these couple of weeks a year. The more you play, the more used to it you are. 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. Now, we're so spoiled playing in great conditions."

Here? Not so much. That wind howling constantly off the North Sea is a brisk reminder.