Cooler than the Pacific breeze that caressed the links yesterday, Rory McIlroy sounded like as mature as the 60-year old man who’ll join him and teenager Ryo Ishikawa on the 10th tee at Pebble Beach today.
Relaxed after a refreshing night’s sleep in the Lodge, his room just a few yards from the first tee, the 21-year old Ulsterman appear to have all the assets you need to win a major title.
But while he’s excited about joining Japan’s “Bashful Prince” and eight time major winner Tom Watson for the first two rounds on America’s most iconic course and brimming with confidence following his stunning win at Quail Hollow five weeks ago, the youngster from Co Down is not putting himself under pressure to deliver on his massive promise this week.
He knows he going to have to be more patient than ever if he is to knock off his first grand slam title in just sixth major start as a pro. But he also knows that it’s only a matter of time before he will be expected to contend.
Tied for 10th on his US Open debut last year, McIlroy said: “I feel that win my Quail Hollow last month was a big confidence boost for me. That told me that I belong out here and I can win big tournaments against a strong field. It gives me the belief that if I am ever in the position again against a field of that calibre of players that I have done it before and I will be able to do it again.
“How close am I to winning a major? I don’t know. I hope I’m not too far. I probably would be more comfortable answering that question if I had a few more wins under my belt.
“But I’ve got to be going into this tournament thinking that I can win, that I have a chance to win and I feel as if my game’s in pretty good shape that if I can get myself into position going into the weekend I should have a good chance.”
Intelligence is a vital part of any major champion’s armoury and McIlroy has that quality in spade.
“There’s no rush right now,” he said of his quest for major glory. “I’m just looking to win my next PGA tournament or European Tour event and but it would be great to get a good run this week and at least put myself into contention.
“I finished third at the (US) PGA last year and I got a good feel about what it’s about and hopefully I can do that again this week.
“I think the main thing around any US Open it’s just patience. It’s really not letting anything bother you. You’ve got to expect that you’re going to have bad holes here and there.
“But you know everyone is going to have bad holes so you’ve just got to get on with it and try and do the best you can and I’ve learned from last year that par in a U.S. Open’s never too far away.”
McIlroy has shot rounds in the 50s around Pebble Beach.
“But that was on the Playstation,” he beamed. “That definitely won’t be happening this week.”
He hadn’t even been thought of when Watson holed that chip at the 17th to beat Jack Nicklaus and win the US Open here in 1982. He’s tried to replicate the shot, but he’s more familiar with the exploits of his hero Tiger Woods on the Monterey Peninsula track in 2000.
“I am sure he will be feeling pretty old when he gets on the first tee tomorrow, playing with myself and Ryo,” McIlroy joked of his draw alongside the legendary Watson. “But I am really looking forward to it. I played a practice round with him at Augusta this year and he’s a really nice man.
“Can Watson win here? He nearly won the British Open at Turnberry and if he plays as well this week, he’s got a great chance as well.”
A European hasn’t won the US Open since Tony Jacklin landed the title 40 years ago but McIlroy reckons the drought could end this year with 60 European Tour members in the field.
He said: “I think this year there’s a great chance that a European could win. Especially the way the golf course is set up. If it continues to get as firm as it has been the last couple of days, it’s playing like sort of linksy out there.
“So obviously Lee Westwood and Robert Karlsson were in the playoff last week, so they’re playing pretty good. There’s so many others as well. You never know. Hopefully if it isn’t myself it can be one of the other Europeans.”
The golf course is not long but it requires great ball-striking and McIlroy knows that if he can pick up birdies on the easier front nine and a couple of the finishing holes, such as the 15th, 16th or par-five 18th, he might have a chance.
“As hard as this golf course is, if you do make a few bogeys, there’s a few holes that you can make up a few shots,” he said. “I hope the wind doesn’t get up too much. You have to hit it higher than usual to hold the greens so hopefully I can hit it a bit higher than usual and get to some of the pins that other guys can’t get to.
“It’s just about being patient and being really really focused on your game plan and knowing that something around even par is going to be a good score.”