Thursday 29 September 2016

McIlroy's Open door slammed shut

Dermot Gilleece

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the 15th green during the continuation of the second round of the US Open at Oakmont yesterday. Photo: USA Today Sports
Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the 15th green during the continuation of the second round of the US Open at Oakmont yesterday. Photo: USA Today Sports

Faced with an exercise in outdoor chess, Rory McIlroy made too many wrong moves at crucial stages of the second round in the 119th US Open at fearsome Oakmont yesterday. Recurring problems on his homeward journey culminated in a 71 for 148, two strokes outside the halfway cut.

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Though he managed to drive the ball considerably better than in an opening 77 in which he hit only five fairways, the Holywood star made costly errors with the blade, most notably when four-putting the third, his 12th, from no more than 12 feet.

Then there was a squandered birdie opportunity after he drove the green with a three-wood on the uphill 318-yard 17th only to three-putt from long range. And he failed to capitalise on the potential lifesaver of a chip-in for par on the sixth, his fourth hole from home.

The foundation of an anticipated McIlroy revival was laid impressively in a back nine of 31 which included birdies at the 10th, his opening hole, along with the 12th, 14th and 16th. Particularly notable was the 14th where he holed a 12-footer from below the hole, but all of this good work was undone over the final nine, leading to his first missed cut in a Major since the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

Meanwhile, Shane Lowry, had reason to be grateful for an opening 68 when his approach to the 10th, his first hole of the second round, found the right greenside bunker. And though having to battle grimly from there, he was equal to the challenge, largely through the quality of his putting.

He finished his second round tied for third on two-under par - and one of just 10 players under par - two shots off the halfway lead held by Dustin Johnson.

Ireland's third challenger, Graeme McDowell, was saved such torment, having completed a second-round 71 late on Friday for a 36-hole total of 143 - three-over par. There wasn't even concern about the cut, which was expected to be around 146 (six-over) and ties.

With greens and fairways drying out in bright sunshine, surprise first-round leader Andrew Landry had a horrendous start of four-over par for his opening eight holes. But, to his great credit, the 28-year-old Texan rallied to cover the remaining holes in three-under, for a remarkable 71.

Yet the later starters would have been greatly heartened by a sparkling 65 from Louis Oosthuizen and a 67 from Gregory Bourdy. In the process, both players managed to overcome errors, the Frenchman doing it more spectacularly with a holed wedge shot for an eagle two at the par-four 11th.

This was McIlroy's eighth US Open appearance, having made his debut in a 10th-place finish at Bethpage Black in 2009. And Oakmont must have felt like another world, compared to rain-soaked Congressional where he stormed to the title in 2011. With green-speeds edging towards of 14.0 on the Stimpmeter, it was measuring up nicely to the assessment of USGA championship director, Mike Davis, who described it as "the gold standard" as a US Open challenge.

The prospect of 36 holes yesterday would have been the source of considerable anxiety for less experienced campaigners at this level. And it had nothing to do with the physical demands which wouldn't be a problem for players who are now, arguably, fitter than they've even been.

There has been evidence, however, of the serious mental and emotional stress involved in coping with a course which is considered the most punishing on any championship schedule. Defending champion, Jordan Spieth, railed against Oakmont's severity on Thursday and Jamie Donaldson effectively played himself out of the event through his reaction to one particular setback on Friday.

This involved the long 12th, which he faced as his third hole after a birdie, birdie start to the second round. In the event, the Welshman ran up a double-bogey seven which prompted an unseemly outburst of temper. After smashing a club against his golf bag, he then proceeded to gouge a considerable piece of Oakmont turf with the same implement. All of which ill-became the 2012 Irish Open champion who went on to become a hero in Europe's Ryder Cup triumph at Gleneagles in 2014. It also cost him a place this weekend, given that he went on to cover the remaining 15 holes in four-over par for a second successive 74.

Among those in pursuit of Johnson and an elusive Major title were Sergio Garcia (two-under) and English duo Lee Westwood and Andy Sullivan (both one-under par).

Yesterday's battle with daylight stemmed from storm disruptions to the opening day on Thursday, when the USGA had no wish to gamble with the weather. A lasting lesson was learned in 1991 at Hazeltine National, where a powerful thunderstorm ripped across the course in the early afternoon of the opening day.

During the storm, a willow tree near the 11th hole was hit by lightning, injuring six spectators who were huddled beneath it. One of the injured, a William Fadell, suffered cardiac arrest and died later at a local hospital.

Two months later, a similar tragedy occurred during the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick where another spectator, Thomas Weaver, was killed by lightning. Ever since these events, the PGA Tour, PGA of America and the USGA have taken steps to ensure that players and spectators receive an early warning of possible lightning strikes, even if it has meant suspending play with only a remote possibility of such a happening. In short, they don't take any chances.

And this is equally true of the European Tour, as we saw in the recent staging of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at The K Club.

In such circumstances, some players cope better than others. I remember a particular weather delay during the US Masters at Augusta National when a number of competitors were clearly ill at ease, while Pádraig Harrington was lying on a bench in the locker-room, fast asleep.

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