Rory McIlroy the safest bet in wackiest race
Published 18/06/2015 | 02:30
A wacky winner for this wackiest of layouts? Or a visually stunning winner for this most visually stunning of courses? Rory McIlroy will be praying it is the latter and so, in truth, should the United States Golf Association.
When the 115th US Open tees off here near Seattle today expect madness to ensue. Graeme McDowell believes these to be the fastest and firmest conditions he has encountered since the 2006 Open Championship at Hoylake.
The difference is, of course, that Hoylake is flat. Chambers Bay is the opposite. It is a veritable roller coaster with its dramatic elevation changes and twists and turns. And just like a roller coaster, it will be exciting.
But it will probably leave you wondering whether the experience was entirely wise.
Mike Davis, the USGA executive director, has his hands firmly on the controls and it will be intriguing to see if he holds his nerve. Never has there been so much focus on the man who essentially is the course superintendent this week.
Just to bring the national championship to this former gravel pit, which was transformed into a spectacular golfing arena only eight years ago, was controversial. If Davis decides on a tough set-up, that controversy will boil over. Think Carnoustie in 1999, Shinnecock Hills in 2004.
Granted, many will enjoy watching golfers, some of the most pampered multimillionaires on Planet Sport, being embarrassed. But however much schadenfreude can be gleaned, that is not the point.
Golf, more than so than almost every other pursuit, allows fortune an influence in deciding its champions. But lady luck should not play the starring role. If the greens are allowed to become too quick, if the pins are tucked away and the very back tees are employed she could win an Oscar in this dust bowl of the vanities. Davis must be generous and err on the side of caution.
McIlroy can then come through. Other players have paused their preparations here to witness McIlroy peppering the 350-yard marker on the practice range. When he is driving it well he is playing well and although Phil Mickelson claims that he can see only three holes out there which require the big club, there is no better form gauge for the world No 1.
Forget about the back-to-back missed cuts at Wentworth and Royal County Down last month and think back to his two wins in his three -previous events.
Team McIlroy are supremely confident in their man, so much so that the 8-1 on offer might seem absurd come Sunday evening.
But then, there are other camps with similar conviction, not least Mickelson who has his second shot at completing the career grand slam and thus joining Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen if one of golf's most exclusive clubs.
The left-hander's final-round 65 for third place in Memphis last week was beautifully timed and the theory goes that his creativity around, and indeed on, these crazy greens will give him the edge.
He maintains that despite being 45-years old he feels no urgency to complete the set, but do not believe a word of it. Mickelson has finished second in the US Open a staggering six times and is understandably desperate to go one better.
Could it be possible that he wants it too much?
In contrast, Dustin Johnson is seemingly without a care in the world, now he is over the "personal issues" - i.e. a recreational drugs ban - which kept him out of the game for six months either side of the new year. He is the main tip in the caddie shack. The American hits it extreme distances, his wedge game is vastly improved and he possesses the laissez-faire approach which will be vital.
Double-bogeys will happen at torture Chambers, mini-disasters will be plentiful. It will be the player who copes best in the chaos, who can -nonchalantly stride on to the next windmill, who will prevail. Patience will be everything.
On that basis, Justin Rose must have a huge shout of winning this crown for the second time in three years. Since finishing runner-up to Jordan Spieth at the Masters, the Englishman has won once and notched up a second to reinforce his reputation as "the professional's professional".
The world No 6 has been here since last week and believes that he and his caddie, Mark Fulcher, have devised the appropriate game plan.
Yesterday he played the back nine with McIlroy and the pair appeared in high spirits. It was as almost as if they knew they would be seeing each other on the same stretch come the weekend.
The young Americans might care to rid them of such a notion. Spieth feels he is back in the form which electrified Augusta and, if the 21-year-old's putter performs as well as it did then, he could easily become the first player since Woods 13 years ago to win the year's opening two majors.
Meanwhile, Rickie Fowler, the Players champion and now perennial major contender, has been racking up some low numbers in practice.
The whisper goes that Fowler shot a 65 here on Tuesday, utilising his undoubted imagination to an emphatic degree. He would be a hugely popular winner as the game embraces its new era.
Except the old era is not quite dead and is not merely in attendance with the likes of Mickelson. The first two days will be another 'Tiger watch', as the world sees if Woods can get over his career-high 85 at the Memorial a fortnight ago to make the cut.
Only Woods is talking about his chances of winning. The bookmakers have the same odds for him still being in town at the weekend as for him having already departed on his private jet. His progress or otherwise will be fascinating.
But then, so much else will intrigue, with holes (the first and 18th) that will change par overnight, one hole (the ninth) which will go from being uphill to downhill overnight and another (the 15th) that will shrink in half from one day to the next. Golf has never seen anything like Chambers Bay. But it has seen officials mess up majors. Over to you, Mr Davis.
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