Tuesday 17 October 2017

Eye of the Tiger back in focus as Woods set to end Major drought

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods shake hands at practice in Merion yesterday
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods shake hands at practice in Merion yesterday

THE splendour of Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, one of the sleepy, opulent townships which lie just inside Philadelphia's north-western commuter belt, is far removed from from the blood, sweat and stench of a boxing gym.

Yet Rory McIlroy set the medicine ball rolling when he revealed his one off-course ambition this week was to run up the 72 steps at Phildelphia's Museum of Modern Art, just like Sylvester Stallone in that iconic scene in 'Rocky'.

For the past couple of days, quite a few of us in the media centre at the US Open have found it impossible to banish from our heads the theme song from that most famous of all fight fairytales.

Indeed, 'The Eye of the Tiger' seems especially appropriate in the run-up to today's opening round on the East Course as one of the toughest, meanest characters in the history of golf, Tiger Woods, tries to get back on the winning trail after five years in the wilderness at the Major championships.

It certainly does seem as if the time is at last right for Woods to resume his lifelong pursuit of the 18 career Majors won by Jack Nicklaus.

SLUGFESTS

With every respect to Aussie Adam Scott, who in April emerged with the Green Jacket from one of the most thrilling Sunday afternoon slugfests at Augusta, Tiger could and probably would have won the Masters, but for an outrageous sucker-punch at 15 on Friday.

Unlucky when his near-perfect approach to 15 rebounded off the flagstick and into the water, leading to a bogey six when birdie four seemed certain, Woods lost another two shots in the committee room for taking his penalty drop in the wrong place.

Whether or not he should have been allowed play on after signing for the wrong score that afternoon has been a topic of hot debate. If his ball had flown an inch right or left, Tiger would have held at least a share of the lead going into the weekend at Augusta and everyone in golf knows what that usually means.

World No 1 Woods today tees it up with his closest rivals in the rankings, McIlroy and Scott, weather-permitting – the mother of all thunder and rainstorms is forecast to dump even more water and hail on Merion this afternoon.

The scintillating form McIlroy displayed in the second half of 2012 after he'd ambled to a second record-breaking Major championship victory in the PGA Championship at Kiawah, propelled him to the top of the world and into Tiger's place at the pinnacle of the sport in the minds of many.

As we enter the second Major of a frustrating season for McIlroy, the Holywood native's stock has fallen, while that of Woods has soared to levels last seen around the turn of the century as he picked off four wins in just eight PGA Tour events this season.

In fact, the first six months of 2013 have helped confirm something long suspected – that even McIlroy, for all his flair and natural talent, cannot match Tiger's bloody-minded commitment to his sport, day in and day out.

It's almost certainly to McIlroy's benefit that he doesn't share Tiger's obsession, enjoying instead a more balanced life with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. On his day and in conditions which suit him, the Irish youngster is unbeatable.

However,

as we saw in the wind at Royal St Georges in 2011; on the bumpy, mind-bending terrain during last summer's US Open at Olympic and even in the freezing wet and cold on Friday at last month's BMW in Wentworth, he does not perform well outside of his comfort zone or deal that well with adversity.

It was interesting to hear McIlroy tell of his missed cut at the 2012 US Open as he expressed his liking for the receptive conditions at Merion.

"I didn't really enjoy the Olympic Club last year," explained McIlroy, admittedly trying to fight his way out of one of the deepest slumps of his career at that time. I much prefer this sort of golf, I guess," he added. "When you hit a shot and it doesn't bounce one way or the other, but stays where you think it's going to stay."

Having honed his golf game to near-perfection through his youth, this young genius quickly becomes impatient with anything less. This year's impetuous decision to change, in one swoosh, all 14 clubs in his bag to Nike and his subsequent failure to live up to great expectations generated by last season and you see how his frustration mounted to breaking point at the Honda in March.

Still, after recent torrential rain at Merion, many painfully sharp edges to the East Course have been smoothed. Yielding conditions will suit McIlroy this week in the same way they did in his first US Open appearance at Bethpage in 2009, when he shared 10th, and to even more spectacular effect two years ago at Congressional, where he broke a host of scoring records on his way to victory.

Not for one minute does McIlroy endorse suggestions that this golf course, at 6,996 yards a mere minnow by modern standards, will yield the first round of 62 at the Majors.

"There's still not going to be that many birdies out here," he insisted.

"You've still got to hit it on the fairway and it's a pretty tight course.

DIFFICULT

"When you do get it in the rough, you're not going to make birdies out of there. So, even though you're going to have chances, you're also going to have some holes where it'll be very difficult."

Steve Stricker hit the nail firmly on the head when he said "this is the longest short course I have played".

Those who find the fairway will hit wedge into nine of the first 13 greens, for example, but with three par-threes stretching over 200 yards and, arguably, the toughest five-hole finishing stretch ever seen at the Majors, Merion will break many a heart this week.

Still, if McIlroy's ball-striking is as good as it has been in recent weeks and his tee shots stay out of the five-inch rough which feels as thick as old rope, he should be counted among the contenders come Sunday.

However, so too will Woods, unlike McIlroy, a man for all-seasons at the US Open, judging by his win in the wet at Bethpage in 2002 and on firm, running fairways at Pebble Beach in 2000 and Torrey Pines (2008) as he romped to his most recent win at the Majors.

During his recent victory in The Players Championship, the course management skills and patience Woods showed placed him in a different league to the opposition and a repeat would thrust him to the fore on the East Course.

The most telling story from Sawgrass was not the row Tiger had with Sergio, which would have nasty reverberations when the Spaniard threw that racial jibe at Tiger in Wentworth, or even the controversial drop Woods took out of that hazard to the left of 14 on Sunday.

Instead, it was the way in which Woods took a potentially stunning double-bogey six at 14 on the chin and continued to box clever for the remainder of his round.

The only sliver of doubt sprouts from the third-round 79, which wrecked Tiger's prospects of hanging on to his title at the Memorial Tournament two weeks back, though at this stage this looks like a mere aberration.

There are many contenders in the field at Merion this week, but a fourth US Open title is in the eye of the Tiger.

US Open, Day 1

Live, Sky Sports 2, 2.0

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