Rory "Rocky" McIlroy can be a contender in Philly

Rory McIlroy likes the soft conditions at Merion. Picture Stuart Adams www.golftourimages.comRory McIlroy isn’t a ham-fisted heavyweight looking to knock seven bells out of Merion with an adrenaline-fuelled attack. But in the city that gave us the great cinematographic hero Rocky Balboa, the fighter in him admitted that his eyes lit up a bit as the rain lashed Philadelphia for three days and took the sting out of the beast in the red corner.

From being regarded a player lacking the course management skills to surgically carve up a fast running Merion, the 24-year old world No 2 is now highly fancied to make a run at his second US Open win in three years.

And it will be his irons, not his driver, that will deliver what he hopes will be a  a knockout blow to his rivals, despite all his early season struggles.

Not only that, he plans to keep the Rocky theme going by sprinting up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art at some stage this week. How’s that for good karma.

“The rain the last few days made the course very receptive and very soft,” McIlroy said. “It probably plays into my hands a little more which is a good thing.

“My game is in good shape and I’ve been seeing a lot of positive signs the last few weeks, I just need to put it all together.

“If I can do that and get on a run, you never know what can happen. I’m feeling good. If I can put it in the fairway, I will have a good chance to score. The good news is that my irons are dialled in and I’m putting better too.”

As for his Rocky run, he said: “I’m actually thinking of going to the steps in the city, the Rocky Steps and just run up those. Just because we are where we are.”

McIlroy has played in four US Opens with wildly differing results. But there is an obvious trend. When it was played on firm, fast courses at Pebble Beach in 2010 and Olympic Club last year, he missed the cut.

When it was soft and receptive at Bethpage Black on his debut in 2010, he was 10th. Then in 2011 at Congressional Country Club in Maryland, another east coast venue softened by heavy rain, he set 11 US Open records on the weekend, including the lowest total 72-hole score (268) and the lowest total under par (−16) in an eight-shot win.

There is no doubt he can be a contender.

“I didn’t really enjoy the Olympic Club last year,” McIlroy said. “I much prefer this sort of golf, I guess.  When you hit a shot and it doesn’t bounce one way or the other, when you hit it and it stays where you think it’s going to stay.  

“There’s still not going to be that many birdies out here.  You’ve still got to hit it on the fairway, it’s still a pretty tight golf course.  

“So when you do get it in the rough, you’re not going to make birdies out of there.  So you’re going to have chances, but you’re going to have some holes where it’s going to be very difficult.

“I expect the scores to be a little lower than what they would be if the course was a little firmer and dryer, but I don’t think you’ll see scores like the scores that were shot at Congressional a couple of years ago.”

“Drawn” with world number one Tiger Woods and number three Adam Scott, it’s hard to argue that McIlroy is coming into the US Open under the radar.

And yet until the heavens opened, only the punters believed the Holywood star could be a contender this week.

McIlroy doesn’t mind having a little less attention. After all, he’s produced his major winning golf when the spotlight has been on others.

“I don’t mind it at all,” he said. “The two majors I won I sort of came in a little bit under the radar. I don’t think people were expecting me to bounce back so quickly after the Masters and then I was going through a little bit of a struggle going into the [US] PGA last year.

“So it’s nice to come in, not under the radar, but probably with a little less attention than I usually get. It’s allowed me to go about business and do my thing and get my preparation done.”

Finding a course that suits your eye is every professional golfer’s dream and while Merion is a little quirkier than the archetypal US Open course, offering players up to nine approach shots with wedges in the first 13 holes, McIlroy likes what he sees.

Compared to four wins by Woods, his early season form has been poor with no wins, two missed cuts, a first round Accenture Match Play defeat to Shane Lowry and that infamous walk-off at the Honda Classic to show for his efforts. On the plus side he’s also had four top 10 finishes

“What has to click? I guess it’s just that one round of great golf and not just 14 or 15 holes really well and having three or four bad holes,” he said. “It’s having that attitude where it all clicks into place. So if I can put it all together, I feel I can have a good week.”