US Open: McIlroy says staying free is key as he tries to scratch seven-year itch

The Northern Irishman hopes a relaxed approach can help him win at Torrey Pines and claim a first Major title since 2014.

Best bet

Rory McIlroy to win the US Open at 22/1

In one answer during his US Open pre-tournament press conference at Torrey Pines on Wednesday, Rory McIlroy makes mention of the word 'free' five times.

Asked how he can take the pressure off himself when "being driven and desperate to win majors again", Rory responds:

"I guess by being indifferent. Not by not caring, but by not putting myself under pressure that I have to care, I guess is the right way to do it. If I went out and played this golf course any other week, you play free, and it's just the same thing. You just have to be able to swing with that freedom, and that's sort of what I'm trying to get back to.

"There's no surprise that if I do have, say, not a great first day that I'm able to play well the rest of the tournament because that does free you up. It's like, okay, well, the bad one's out of the way, and now I can just sort of freewheel. It's just a matter of freewheeling from the Thursday and not the Friday."

While many golfers like to have a single swing thought to narrow their focus, Rory prefers a mind trick: he hopes it's this that can guide him to a first major title since 2014 and end a lengthy seven-year drought at the top level.

All through his press conference it's pretty obvious that the Northern Irishman wants to see the positives.

His opening comments on Torrey Pines are revealing. Others have focused on potential problems or difficulties but not Rory.

Rory on the course setup

"It's really good. I had my first look at the course yesterday, played 18 holes. The setup's great. It's fair. Obviously, with the dry southern California climate, the greens have the possibility to get very firm, so I think they've taken that in mind.

"The rough is playable. You can hit it in the rough and at least have a chance to get it up around the green and sort of use your short game to scramble and save par. It's not as penal as some other US Opens. But I think the setup's good. It's really fair. I've heard nothing but positive praise from a lot of the players.

"It's nice to come to a venue where we all know it pretty well from sort of being on the PGA TOUR schedule. There's not really any secrets out there. We all know what to do and how to play it, and it's just a matter of who can execute over the four days."

On disappointing Thursday scores

He's later asked about his poor first rounds in Majors - a problem we focused on earlier this week. But Rory doesn't dwell.

"Probably just putting a little too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being a little tentative. I think that sort of sums it up."

That's it. Rory doesn't get bogged down; he answers in 25 words and moves onto the next question.

Getting in the swing

Later, one question refers to his recent work with swing coach Pete Cowen. Again it's an upbeat Rory response and another mention of being free.

"I feel good. Pete and I had a few really good days in Florida last week. Yeah, like the technical and mechanical parts of it are all there. It's just a matter of going out in a US Open setting and just trusting what I've been doing in practice, and then that gets more into the mental side of things and just being really clear and really committed in what you're trying to do and being as free on the course as I am on the range.

"That's the big challenge, but in terms of where everything's heading, it's definitely in the right direction. Yeah, we had some really good days last week."

Lessons from Congressional

McIlroy knows all about the power of taking the right mental path. In 2011 he famously fell apart in the final round of the Masters when four shots clear with 18 to play but came out and won the next Major, the US Open at Congressional, by eight.

Asked to recall his mentality heading into that US Open and compare it to now, Rory is his usual honest self. He admits he's changed as a person but wants a piece of that same free and positive mindset.

"I think the '11 US Open was only my third one, and I played okay at Bethpage in '09, I missed the cut at Pebble in '10. Yeah, probably just a little less going on in my head, I guess, is the best way to describe it. Probably a little less cynical too. Sometimes I think you can sort of get into that mindset coming into US Opens.

"Yeah, just trying to -- first time I laid my eyes on Congressional, I thought, you know, I could see myself shooting scores out here. It's the same as here. You hit fairways, you hit greens, and you can shoot good scores. It's just a matter of getting into a little more of a positive mindset going into the tournament."

McIlroy missed the cut at Augusta National earlier this year and then had to settle for tied 49th in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

The last question in his press conference is about how he can change the narrative. It's a chance for Rory to crystalise his approach this week one more time.

And if it doesn't work? Well, Rory can always ask caddie Harry Diamond to go and get the guitar.

Rory ready to play free

"At Augusta, I was still in the middle of a transition of stuck in between what I was trying to do in my swing, and it wasn't a great week.

"Kiawah, I felt like I went into the week playing pretty well. I struggled on the left-to-right winds there. So even from the first tee shot on Thursday, hitting it into the water on 10. Since then, I've changed my driver setup a little bit, and I feel a lot more comfortable with that.

"If I'd have played the par-5s the same way that Phil (Mickelson) played them at Kiawah, I'd have won the golf tournament. I just played the par-5s so badly. But every time you play a tournament, you learn something, and you try to put that into practice the next week. But you know, I won a tournament four or five weeks ago (Wells Fargo Championship), so it's there.

"Probably walking off Muirfield Village a couple Sundays ago, I said to Harry, I felt like I played better at Memorial than I did at Quail Hollow. I finished 18th at Memorial and I won Quail Hollow. It's golf at the end of the day and sometimes it's just unpredictable.

"I'm feeling good about where my game is. As I said at the very start, it's about going out there and playing as free as I can and having that mentality that I had as a 22-year-old and just trying to get into that mindset."

READ MORE: US Open at Torrey Pines: Rahm is ready to become a Major man

Latest Golf Videos