Rory McIlroy arrives at the U.S. Open content with his career, yet burning to end his major drought

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PINEHURST, N.C. — The final question Rory McIlroy was asked before he headed onto Pinehurst No. 2 on Tuesday for his first practice round at this week's U.S. Open was perhaps more befitting of a player in the twilight of his career than one ranked No. 3 in the world.

Are there still goals that McIlroy wants to achieve?

His answer was the exact opposite of what one might expect: "Not particularly," McIlroy replied.

"I'm really proud of my body of work over the past 15 years and everything that I have achieved," he continued, by way of an explanation, "whether it be season-long titles or individual tournaments or majors. Obviously, getting my hands on a fifth major has taken quite a while, but I'm more confident than ever that I'm right there, that I'm as close as I've ever been."

Ah, yes. That fifth major.

McIlroy is still a fierce competitor, and if there is a list of goals, that might top it.

The 35-year-old from Northern Ireland has come oh-so close so many times over the years. Yet McIlroy's continued failure to complete the career grand slam by winning the Masters, coupled with a tie for 12th at the PGA Championship last month, have kept alive a major championship drought that has stretched a full decade.

The closest call may have come in this very tournament one year ago.

McIlroy played his way into the penultimate group on Sunday, starting off one shot back of Wyndham Clark and Rickie Fowler, and proceeded to birdie the opening hole to send a charge through Los Angeles Country Club. But despite 16 pars and a lone bogey over the next 17 holes, the kind of even-keel perseverance that it often takes to win the U.S. Open, McIlroy nevertheless found himself watching in vain as Clark two-putted from 60 feet at the 18th to beat him by a single stroke.

It was McIlroy's fifth consecutive top-10 finish at the U.S. Open. And his third runner-up in a major since the PGA Championship in 2014, when McIlroy won his second straight major and fourth overall with a one-shot victory over Phil Mickelson.

"I mean, I want to win as many golf tournaments as I can," said McIlroy, who teamed with Shane Lowry to win the Zurich Classic in April and captured his fourth Wells Fargo title just last month. "I want to try to compete and win as many majors as I can."

That might well end up being four.

It just as easily could be five by the end of this week.

"I think the only thing about trying to pick a number is that you're setting yourself up for failure or disappointment," McIlroy said, rounding back to the subject of his career goals, and using Tiger Woods' pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships as an example. " Tiger wanted to surpass Jack. It looks like he mightn't get there, but are we going to call Tiger's career a failure? Absolutely not. It's arguably the best. He's played the best golf anyone's ever seen.

"There's always going to be that tinge of 'what could have been.' I don't want to do that," McIlroy said. "If someone would have told me at 20 years old I'd be sitting here at 35 and this is the career I've had, I would not have believed them."

Indeed, McIlroy has no shortage of confidence as he prepares to play alongside the only two people ranked ahead of him in the world — Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and PGA champion Xander Schauffele — in a star-studded group Thursday and Friday.

He has finished no worse than 15th in his last five starts, and while McIlroy's prodigious power should provide him with his usual advantage at Pinehurst, his vastly underrated short-game could be the difference. The false fronts and run-offs that make up the greens around the classic Donald Ross layout are certain to provide a test, especially if they get fast and hard.

And if things don't fall into place this week? If too many tee shots find the wire brush and pitch shots roll back to his feet?

"I still like to think I've got a good run ahead of me," McIlroy said.

"Whatever those numbers are, whatever the totals add up to, I'll accept that," he added, "and feel like I've done pretty well for a little boy from Northern Ireland that dreamed of playing golf for a living one day."


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