McIlroy facing true test of form at Olympic

Rory McIlroy hits balls on the range at the Olympic Club on Monday. Picture Eoin Clarke/www.golffile.ieRory McIlroy shrugged off the final hole flop that cost him the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis and arrived at the US Open insisting he has high hopes of defending his title.

Despite hooking his three-wood tee shot into the water at the 18th when tied for the lead and then three-putting for a double bogey that relegated him to seventh behind Dustin Johnson at TPC Southwind, the world number two is convinced that his game is on the rise in the nick of time after halting a run of three missed cuts with a run at a fourth PGA Tour win.

“I saw a lot of positive signs this week. I got in a good position after 11 holes of the final round and hit a couple of  [loose] shots coming in,” said McIlroy, who had a two stroke lead at one stage. “Overall it’s still a pretty good week.

“I wanted to come here just to get some competitive rounds. I said in the early part of the week, if I got into contention, that was great. I did that.  I had a real good chance to win the golf tournament.  I didn’t do that.  I’m happy I came here, and I feel like I’m well prepared going into the US Open.”

Yet while no-one made more birdies in Memphis than the 23-year old, McIlroy also had 14 bogeys and a double which is hardly the kind of form that will strike fear into the hearts of the USGA.

Executive Director Mike Davis appears determined to make sure there will be no repeat McIlroy’s record-setting 16 under par winning score at Congressional last year and described the opening six holes at The Olympic Club as “beyond brutal.”

McIlroy argued on Sunday night that he accomplished his mission in Tennessee, bouncing back from his recent mini slump by and contending for the title.

But the truth is that must now play his fifth event in the space of six weeks with a game that lacks the grinding consistency necessary to win what is described as the toughest major test of all.

Barring a case of fatigue or dehydration, McIlroy’s performance in Memphis will have little bearing on his US Open week, which he began with a session on the range and a stint in the gym, avoiding the course until today.

If he believes he has sorted out the technical issues that bugged him at Sawgrass, Wentworth and Muirfield Village, we must take him at his word. But only time will tell if he has the confidence or the energy to contend.

What was truly impressive about his week in Memphis was the way he battled his way into a share of the lead with a clutch 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th and then tried to play the “right” shot at the last.

It didn’t come off but while his hopes sank in a watery grave, McIlroy can take pride from the fact that he put his neck on the line, as Padraig Harrington likes to say.

When he looks back at his 12 months as US Open champion, he will realise how much he has learnt and how much he can still improve.

Including his Congressional triumph, the pride of Holywood has won four times around the world in the past year, earning €6.77 million from 24 starts to become Irish golf’s first world No 1 before Luke Donald regained the crown.

Summing up the past 12 months, McIlroy said: “This year has been a big learning curve for me because I’m still trying to find a balance between being a top-class golfer and handling media commitments, sponsors’ commitments, trying to have a life outside of all that, just trying to balance everything. It’s something that it’s hard to do all of them all at the same time.”

He’s arguably the best equipped of a four-strong Irish contingent to contend here-  Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Peter Lawrie make up Ireland’s US Open challenge. But his US Open form on firm and fast courses does not bode well.

Tied for 10th on his debut at a soggy Bethpage Black in 2009 and a runaway winner on another soft course last year, he missed the cut at a bouncy Pebble Beach two years ago.

Getting out of the Olympic Club unscathed promises to be tougher than escaping alive from nearby Alcatraz, even for McIlroy.