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Rory McIlroy is in the mix and full of expression at the US Open

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BROOKLINE, Mass. — Rory McIlroy’s Saturday afternoon began with his driver on the left hand, his outstretched arm pointing farther to the left, a whimsical start to a lopsided day. He continued with a smile and a neck twist on the third hole, the first shocked face after slipping a 10-foot putt for a birdie on the fourth, the second look of exasperation after his tee shot on the sixth par 3 fell short. and left.

By the eighth, his cap was pulled low over his face, before his left hand ran through his hair, nearly pulling it off. On the 18th hole, a photocopy of the pose from four hours before appeared: the driver in the left hand, the arm extended further to the left. If you can hear it, get down. He will be a Hall of Fame golfer at some point. If there is a Hall of Fame for body language expressiveness, he will be a founding member. He must be a ringer in charades, an easy target in Texas Hold’em.

“It was one of the toughest days on a golf course I’ve had in a long time,” McIlroy said.

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He said it out loud because he was asked to rate his round. No need, really. The 5 foot 9 frame of hers screamed all day.

This was the US Open for just about everyone on Saturday because if your name isn’t Matt Fitzpatrick or Will Zalatoris, the combination of the Country Club’s inherent shenanigans and winds that would rock the USS Constitution left the field with the collective head. between the hands

However, McIlroy is a special case in such circumstances and not just because he is a special player. If you want to know how the 33-year-old Northern Irishman is playing, take a five-second look at him. The book is always open and he will give you reading glasses if you need them. If his swollen chest turns green 30 seconds before the rest of his body, he’s killing it. If he’s reduced to a bag full of slumped shoulders and palms to the face… well, you know. There is no mystery.

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Saturday’s drive to a 3-over-par 73 that dropped him from 4-under and 1-back to start the day at 1-under and 3-back by evening could have been interpreted in a number of ways. Was the 20-foot par putt bad luck that needed an extra quarter turn to save par, or what he deserved for missing the green? Was it the six-footer that missed for a birdie on the seventh misfortune or a missed shot? Was 73 okay since he hit only 7 of 18 greens, or should he have hit more greens to produce a score less than 73?

Bottom line: Was the day about leaving shots lying around, or keeping your cool?

“I go home thinking I held this round together,” McIlroy said, “when I could have gotten away quickly.”

His position three behind Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick, with only four other players between him and the leaders, is important to McIlroy and the Open. Every weekend at a major in which McIlroy’s name is on the leaderboard presents itself as an opportunity for history. He has four of the shiniest trophies. One more would move him to a club that has only 19 members. Two more would tie him with Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo and Lee Treviño. Three more …

Stop. We’ve been doing this with McIlroy for over a decade. After all this time, his legacy is a peculiar combination of safe and stagnant. He is a swaggering, listless example of the talent and tenacity it takes to fight so often and the fortune and fortitude it takes to beat even one of them.

Since it’s eight years and 28 majors since the last of his four titles, the 2014 PGA Championship, it’s tempting to think of McIlroy as a provocation. Think of it this way: The leaderboard heading into Sunday’s final round is led by a pair of players seeking their first pro wins in the United States, Zalatoris of Texas and Fitzpatrick of England, who would be considered worthy even if they are young. It includes the defending champion of this event, Jon Rahm, not to mention the new Masters champion, Scottie Scheffler, who happens to be the highest ranked player in the world.

And yet, of the 11 players who will go to sleep Saturday night knowing they’ve completed 54 holes at par or better, the major titles scoreboard reads: McIlroy 4, Everyone else 3.

“Look,” he told Irish radio before meeting international media, “I’m one big round away from winning another major championship.”

A big round is not your problem. Four big rounds has been. Recently, he’s been scrutinized for his performance in the majors, not because he hasn’t competed, but in a weird way, because of the way he has. At the Masters, his final-round 64 was exciting and elevated him to second place behind Scheffler, but it also caused him to scratch his head: Why was he preceded by two indifferent 73s and a 71? At the PGA Championship last month in Tulsa, he opened with 65 to lead, closed with 68 to secure a top 10, but put them around a 71 and a 74.

He is blessed with abilities and cursed by his existence, and his body contortions and facial expressions betray him. After that final tee shot on the 18th, he slumped towards his ball, which he was sure was so far to the left that he would be called for a penalty shot.

“When I saw him up there, I was like, ‘Oh no,’” he said.

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Instead, some good fortune: he was in a position close to a grandstand, so he was handed over. The result: the chance to drop, then throw a 150-yard tie around the corner. What he did was a reminder of why he is so exciting.

After he made it, he didn’t strut or slump as he walked back to the street. Rather, he was bulging-eyed, almost bewildered. That was his day, and so is this tournament.

“I always try to look on the bright side of things and be optimistic,” he said. “Yes, in this game of golf, you must be an eternal optimist.”

He laughed at that idea, then tilted his head back, sort of like rolling his eyes. An eternal optimist, in this game and in these conditions, with a major on the line eight years after winning one? Rory McIlroy’s face can’t hide how absurd that idea is.

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