McIlroy must be wary: Friday the 13th looms

Rory McIlroy is gunning to join an exclusive club at Pinehurst No 2 - but give his second round troubles this year he must be wary of the curse of Friday the 13th in this week’s US Open.

Only 21 players in the history of the game have won more than two US Opens crowns.

As Walter Hagen, winner in 1914 and 1919 said: "Any player can win a US Open, but it takes a hell of a player to win two."

No one doubts that McIlroy is "a hell of a player" and having impressively returned to the winner’s circle at Wentworth in the BMW PGA two weeks ago, the 2011 US Open winner is clearly back in form.

But he will have to be wary that he doesn’t suffer the curse of Friday the 13th in round two after crashing to an alarming string of poor second rounds already this year.

After opening with a stunning 63 in the Memorial Tournament last week, the 25-year old former World No 1 slumped to a 78 in round two.

It was a round that raised concerns over the left knee injury he aggravated the previous day. But it also raised question marks about his tendency to throw in a destructive run of holes early in a tournament.

"I think for me it's been a stretch of nine holes at some point during the tournament where I've maybe shot three, four or five over par and at the weekend I've lost by two or three," he confessed when explaining the difference between winning and racking up the Top 10s.

"It happened more than once at Sawgrass. I didn't get off to very good starts at all on the front nine.  It happened at Quail Hollow as well a little bit.

"I had three really bad Fridays in a row, Masters, Quail Hollow, TPC.  I think that's what really held me back."

McIlroy didn’t have a bad stretch at Wentworth but three double bogeys in a row early in his second round 78 at Muirfield Village cost him the tournament.  

In fact, his second round scoring average on the PGA Tour this year is 73.5, leaving him 186th out of 191 on the US circuit.

Presuming he can avoid disasters, Pinehurst will offer him the chance to shine if he can drive it straight. [He's given PGA a rundown on his bag set up this week here]

With the rough of 1999 and 2005 replaced by sandy waste areas and wide fairways, he can afford to get aggressive with the driver and,  if he makes a mistake, still have a 50-50 chance of being able to go for the green.

"I loved what I saw, I really did," he said after two practice rounds earlier last week, one of them a facile 69. "I love what they've done with the native areas by taking the deep rough away. It's going to be different to what we usually expect at the US Open.

"I think some guys are going to be surprised by the look of the course compared to 1999 and 2005, but for me it's new and I don't know any different. So I really liked it out there.

"Generous fairways will encourage guys to get the driver in their hands ... and you'll need to because if you're not hitting driver around here, it's an awfully long golf course."

McIlroy knows it’s still a risk to go for the driver but it’s a risk he appears determined to take.

"When you hit it into the long rough at previous US Opens, you'd only one option – try and hack it back out onto the fairway and go from there," he said.

"Here you might have a shot and you might not. It’s 50-50 whether you can get it up close to the green or you have to chip out, so there's a risk-reward element to it.

"Some of those areas are fine. You'll get a nice, clean hardpan lie, though if you get into these little wiregrass bushes, you can advance it only 40 or 50 yards. There'll really be a bit of luck involved going in there."

Hard and fast courses don’t usually suit McIlroy while the upturned-saucer greens will test his short game and putting.

"This is a really strong golf course which tests all aspects of your game, but the greens are its defence with all those run-off and everything," he said. 

"They're tricky and I think here, more than anywhere else, you have to play to the middle of greens."

Ryder Cup skipper Paul McGinley is certainly backing McIlroy to shine and battle through the tough spells.

"We are seeing a more mature Rory, McGinley said. "We are seeing a Rory who is able to dig when things aren’t going well and still churn out a Top-10 finish. And then when he does hit top form like last week, he goes on to win."

McDowell feeling right at home at Pinehurst

Graeme McDowell feels right at home at Pinehurst because of its links feel and golf-mad ambience.
But while he believes it sets up for his game, he fears that the lack of rough and the wide open fairways could play into the hands of the big hitters and dent his chances of a second US Open win.

"I'm just worried that with no rough, this year's Open is going to give the bombers a little too much space," McDowell said. "That's my only concern. But I like the way it sets up for me. Yes, it is long, but it will be firm and fast.

"It's linksy around the greens which is something I like. You have got to pace putt well here, which I like. And you have got to be very accurate off the tee.

"I love the way it sets up for me. It is a different US Open for sure but it is going to be a fun one."

That’s not to say that McDowell found the course easy. But with the links-like feel, it feels more like an Open than a US Open with the Bermuda rough eliminated and the sandy waste areas restored.

"I really enjoyed it," he said after a recent practice round. "The 2005 US Open was the first major championship cut I ever made so I have good memories. But it is a very different looking golf course that what I remember in ’05.

"The restoration is amazing. The Bermuda rough didn't really frame the golf course up the way this new fairway and native area does.

"It really does feel more like a British Open than a US Open around the greens. But  really believe that if the wind was to blow here and if conditions were firm and fast, I'd certainly take level par and sit in the clubhouse.

"I might take five over par and sit in the clubhouse. I really believe it is that tough and you really have to control your golf ball around here.

"It think the players are going to love it and the fans are going to love it and it is going to be a great US Open.

"Golf is in the blood in this part of the world and where I grew up in Portrush in Northern Ireland, golf was in the blood. I guess I do feel like there is a piece of home here."

Darren’s missing links

Darren Clarke has just one Top-10 in 13 US Open starts — at Pinehurst in 1999.

Co-incidence? He begs to differ and it has a lot to do with his upbringing on Irish links courses.

"The US Open has never been my cup of tea, as my record shows" he said. "One tenth place and nothing else inside the Top 20 in 12 other visits.

"I don’t know why I haven’t done better. After all, I am a reasonable driver of the ball, which is paramount at US Open set ups.

"It’s probably understandable that my best finish — 10th in 1999 — came at Pinehurst, which has more of a links feel than any of the other courses on the US Open roster."

Clarke missed the cut on his return to US Open action at Merion last year after a thee-year absence from America’s biggest major.

But after shedding more than three stone over the winter he has yet to see his scores shrink to match.

Ranked 336th in the world, down 40 places this term, Clarke headed to Memphis for his warm up this week having missed five of his last six cuts.

It's hardly the form of a US Open contender but if his links gene kicks in, he may surprise himself.