Karl MacGinty: Whatever the weather, Ulster's two Macs have Major hope
McIlroy and McDowell both have what it takes to solve Pinehurst's puzzles
DUSK was falling at Pinehurst. The crowds had departed and, taking advantage of the peace and tranquillity of a balmy Monday evening at the US Open, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore strolled out from the clubhouse to have a look at their handiwork.
Up the fairway strode Graeme McDowell and caddie Ken Comboy, completing an idyllic half-dozen holes in the glooming.
They exchanged friendly greetings, Crenshaw leaning closer to McDowell as he shook the Ulsterman's hand and said quietly: "You're my pick this week."
Significantly, two-times Masters-winner Crenshaw, who led the US to victory over Europe in the Battle of Brookline in 1999, and his design partner Coore have been acclaimed widely for recasting the No 2 Course at Pinehurst to fit the vision of its creator Donald Ross.
As winner of the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach and renowned as one of the most dogged grinders in professional golf, McDowell's credentials for success this week in what promises to be a gruelling championship are well established.
Yet had bookies' favourite Rory McIlroy happened along instead that evening, the same words from Crenshaw would not have sounded remotely out of place.
For the two Ulstermen appear to have all the bases covered this week.
If, as forecast, rainstorms drench the golf course and soften, even by a fraction, its daunting turtle-back greens, McIlroy's effortless power, high ball flight and current precision hitting will lend him a telling advantage.
McIlroy's made the US Open cut at three rain-doused courses and missed it twice on hard ground.
Most famously of all, Congressional was yielding in 2011, helping the youngster attain a record-shattering first Major championship win just 70 days after his Sunday afternoon implosion at Augusta.
Already this week, players have noticed that the middle of Pinehurst's fairways, where the only remaining sprinklers lie, are quite lush.
The going gets progressively harder and balls grow frisky the closer you get to the vast, sandy waste areas which lie on either side of the short grass.
So, length will be to McIlroy's advantage if he continues to drive his ball as straight as he has in practice this week, or as he did in victory at last month's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Still, he must eliminate those tournament-wrecking nine-hole stretches which scuppered him on Friday at Augusta and caused him to post a cataclysmic second round 78 at Memorial less than 18 hours after signing for a sensational 63.
Should McIlroy banish those Friday foibles and maintain consistency over all four days, he'll get very close to a third Major title come Sunday.
However, should those famously intimidating greens remain fiery and continue to repel even well-aimed shots, then McDowell's prowess as one of the most persistent and consistent scramblers on the PGA Tour will propel him to the fore.
McDowell described the new-look Pinehurst as "beautiful", adding it's "very un-American ... a touch of St Andrews, Royal Portrush and Hoylake." He believes Coore and Crenshaw have restored No 2 as "a second-shot golf course" and restoring the primacy of its green complexes.
"Obviously, I was here (at the US Open in 2005) and didn't think the set-up was very good. This is a second- shot golf course and it wasn't giving you an opportunity to hit second shots," he explained.
Renowned English coach Pete Cowen looked forward most of all this week to seeing the world's greatest take on recovery shots from around Pinehurst's greens which, he said, Seve Ballesteros would have relished at his best.
"Length is going to be an advantage in places around here," McDowell admitted.
"It's going to give the guys opportunities I'm not going to have, but length can also open up some problems.
"I think when you get a little too aggressive into some of these flag positions you're going to wish that you didn't bother hitting it 320 down the middle.
"You're going to wish that maybe you had 6-iron in your hand and you had to play away from the flag.
"So, I don't think necessarily getting short irons in your hand you're going to make this golf course any easier because I think flags are going to be elusive at the best of times – and it doesn't matter whether you've got 6-iron or 8-iron in your hand, you're going to be playing away from the flags to try and make four.
"I don't think there'll be a lot of birdies made around this golf course. You're going to have to really par this place to death," he added. "The guy who makes the most pars is going to win this week."
And McDowell, like Padraig Harrington at his Major-winning best, revels in that environment. He may cede yards to McIlroy, but the 25-year-old, one suspects, has yet to acquire the patience and bloody-minded persistence that G-Mac exudes when he's in the zone.
It'll come with time, but, right now, Pinehurst looks more like McDowell country.
The $2.5m restoration of Pinehurst was commissioned several years ago by its owners in an effort to re-establish the 'uniqueness' of the most fabled of their eight courses.
It was completed long after the course, uniquely, was chosen to host the Men's and Women's US Opens on consecutive weeks, a grand experiment which, if successful, is expected to become commonplace.
Still, the USGA could not have found another venue more perfectly-suited to Phil Mickelson, especially with such short-game genius, in a career-long quest to win his national championship.
In any other year, Mickelson would have been a cast-iron favourite to follow last June's heart-rending, record-breaking sixth runner-up finish at the US Open and, fittingly, complete his career grand Slam on the course where he graduated into a Major Championship contender 15 years ago.
Back in 1999, the left-hander famously lost by one stroke to the late Payne Stewart, whose iconic celebration of his 15-foot winning putt was captured in bronze and stands in the lee of the Pinehurst clubhouse close to the 18th green.
Yet this is the least-impressive season of Mickelson's career. Deserted by the putting touch which was such a striking feature of his astonishing British Open victory at Muirfield, the left-hander has failed to finish in the top-10 anywhere in the past nine months and, abjectly, missed the cut at April's Masters.
Though Bubba Watson cruised brilliantly to his second Masters title at Augusta in April, one suspects the excitable American is temperamentally unsuited to the slings and arrows which this week's contenders inevitably will face at Pinehurst.
Matt Kuchar, the anti-Bubba, is far more likely to succeed in this environment.
Ireland also can observe with interest the performance of Shane Lowry, who is blessed with a wonderful touch around the greens, and Darren Clarke, who returned to Dr Bob Rotella's consulting 'couch' this week in an effort to go 'unconscious' in the same way as he did at Royal St George's in 2011.
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