Almost everyone expects Rory McIlroy to come out with all guns blazing in search of the world No 1 ranking at Quail Hollow this week.
The new “old” No 1 Luke Donald is one. Rory McIlroy is another. As for Padraig Harrington, he just expects McIlroy to play well, with the occasional blip, for the next 25 years.
But what can we expect from McIlroy when the US Open is played at a firm and fast Olympic Club in San Francisco in June? The Holywood man got his first top 10 in a major when he finished 10th at a soggy Bethpage Black in 2009 and then lapped the field with a performance for the ages at a slightly less soggy Congressional Country Club last year. But what of the in-between year?
In 2010 at Pebble Beach, the last time the US Open was played on a hard and fast west coast track, McIlroy shots rounds of 75 and 77 to miss the cut as another Ulsterman captured the trophy. Was this the sign of a player who struggles with firm conditions or just a quick of fate and form? Judging by the fact that McIlroy didn’t miss another cut until last year’s Quail Hollow Championship, we’re guessing it was the latter.
Nobody does bounce-backs like McIlroy, as we saw post-Augusta last year when went to Congressional and posted the lowest total 72-hole aggregate (268) and the lowest total with respect to par (−16) in the history of the US Open.
“At that point a couple years ago I wasn’t playing so well,” McIlroy said, recalling his Pebble Beach reverse. “It wasn’t just the conditions that really got the better of me that week, it was just more I wasn’t in control of my golf ball.
“But I’ll make sure that I’ll do everything I can to go into that tournament ready to play and as fresh as I can be. You just really have to mentally prepare yourself for the type of golf that you’re going to have to play that week. But that all depends on the conditions and you see how those conditions are during that week.
“But, yeah, I expect it to play pretty similar to Pebble and you just got to adapt your game to that. That’s what the best players can do, they can adapt to all different conditions and that’s what I’ll have to do to hopefully try and win more Major Championships.”
As prepares to turn 23 this week, McIlroy is maturing nicely as a golfer. His game was off at the Masters, where high expectations and a wayward driver saw him finish tied for 40th with Tiger Woods.
He was disappointed not to achieve some Masters redemption but looking at the bigger picture, you sense that he is growing as a player all the time.
Whether we get Quail Hollow McIlroy, Congressional McIlroy or Pebble Beach McIlroy remains to be seen. What is clear is that McIlroy now has the tools to win without getting his game into top gear.
Well I wish I knew the answer to that, to be honest. Yeah, it seems to happen a few times a year and it’s nice, it would be nice to know when it was going to happen or how often, but you really don’t know these things. All you can do is work hard and practice.
“There are going to be times where you catch fire and you maybe play a 36 hole stretch and play it in 15‑under or something like that,” McIlroy said when asked if his ‘explosiveness’ was something he could turn on at will.
“But I don’t know, I’m just glad that it happened once or twice a year and I feel like the rest of my game is getting better, so I’m able to put myself in contention more often and be able to win with maybe not having that explosiveness on any given week. So I think that’s the real key to becoming a better player for me.”
Harrington reckons McIlroy has the talent to come out firing on all cylinders — even after a three-week break since Augusta – when he tees it up in Charlotte this week.
“He’s different to me,” the Dubliner said on Setanta TV iTalk Sport programme at the weekend. “He is nowhere near as obsessive about the game as I am. I have to make a big effort to get away from the game. He has a very nice balance.
“I always felt I had to play two tournaments before I was competitive for the third tournament. On the one hand, I was trying to get competitive but on the other, I was tiring myself out. He has the ability to play much less and still be focused and competitive.”
Harrington is still convinced that the reigning US Open champion has all the time in the world to achieve his goals — including multiple major wins.
He said: “If I was giving Rory any advice, he shouldn’t feel like he has to win a major every year in order to get to whatever record he’s seeking. It doesn’t happen like that. It comes in little spurts just like I got three majors in two years.
“I’ve heard criticism of me saying that Rory could possibly beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. And it is possible. In order to win a number if majors, you have got to play in a lot them and Rory is going to play them for another 25 years and be competitive.
“He’s got the numbers and he’s got the ability. He’s already lapped the field in one major and lapped the field in the Masters for three rounds. He can certainly surpass Nick Faldo’s six majors and challenge Tiger’s 14 and who knows after that.
“That’s not saying there won’t be speed bumps on the way as we figured out with Tiger. There are always speed bumps that you don’t see.”
McIlroy should regard the Masters as a speed bump. Under severe pressure to perform in a tournament that many believed as all about Tiger v Rory, he failed to ignite. It happens.
What’s more interesting is that he can laugh about it now and look at the constant comparisons with Woods as something to be welcomed not shunned. He hopes he’s compared to Tiger a lot more often, for the right reasons, of course.
“I hope so. I would like to, because if I’m being compared to him I’m doing something right. So, yeah, I knew there was a lot of hype pre‑Masters about it was a horse race or whatever, and it was a two horse race for 40th. I think we both tied in 40th place. So it wasn’t our best week, but hopefully you go into the next Major and we both play a little bit better and maybe it would be great to get in contention on Sunday and if he’s there as well it would be great. But, yeah it’s a nice position to be in to be compared to him and to be mentioned in the same sentence, I’m definitely not complaining about that.”
No-one has won back-to-back US Opens since Curtis Strange in 1989. McIlroy believes that may be because it’s the toughest major of them all.
RORY MCILROY: Not sure. I think it was, was it Curtis Strange that won back to back? I don’t know, because this will be my fourth U.S. Open and every time ‑‑ I feel like Bethpage in 2009 and Congressional last year were pretty similar, just because it was pretty wet and the course played pretty soft. And I’m expecting this year to maybe be a little similar to Pebble in terms of that it will be fast and running and it will be, it won’t necessarily be a long ball hitter that will play well there, you just really need to control your ball.
So I don’t know why. It’s the toughest test that we face all year and I’m not sure why there hasn’t been a repeat champion, but obviously I’m going to try my hardest to make that happen this year.
Q. Given all the low numbers last year, including your record low score, the USGA’s always tried to make this the toughest test, what are you expecting as far as a level of toughness of this course here this year?
RORY MCILROY: I think the only thing that made the scores so low at Congressional last year was the fact that they just got so much rain beforehand and they were never able to dry the course out the way they would like.
So I attribute that to the numbers that were shot. I think that if the weather permits this year in San Francisco, we’ll get the golf course firm and fast and it will be tricky. You’ll really have to think about where you need to land your ball on the fairways and on the greens and I’m expecting it to be a really tough and tricky test this year where something around even par will win most U.S. Opens, you know, something around even par isn’t going to be too far away. Last year was a little bit of an exception, but I think that it will go, that this year, if you do, if you shoot four 70’s you’ll have a great chance.