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Friday 19 September 2014

Wide 'open' spaces please Rory McIlroy at Pinehurst

Karl McGinty

Published 05/06/2014 | 02:30

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Graeme McDowell watches his tee shot from the 14th during the Irish Open Golf Championship 2013. Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Graeme McDowell watches his tee shot from the 14th during the Irish Open Golf Championship 2013. Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Graeme McDowell's only cause of concern is inevitably a source of satisfaction for Rory McIlroy as both Ulster players visited next week's US Open venue to sample the delights of the extensively revamped No 2 Course at Pinehurst.

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McIlroy travelled to the Sand Hills of North Carolina on Monday and Tuesday and was delighted to find plenty of use for the strongest weapon in his arsenal, that crimson Covert driver.

"I'd never seen Pinehurst before, so it's my first time around the course," said a beaming McIlroy.

"I loved what I saw, I really did. I love what they've done with the native areas by taking the deep rough away. It's going to be different to what we usually expect at the US Open," he added.

"I think some guys are going to be surprised by the look of the course compared to 1999 and 2005, but for me it's new and I don't know any different. So I really liked it out there."

So did McDowell on his visit last week. Thanks to Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, the course once again corresponds to the vision of its original designer Donald Ross.

The killer rough and narrow fairways which stifled adventure in 2005 have been replaced by wide fairways and expansive waste areas, making Pinehurst appeal more to the eye of McDowell, whose 2010 victory came at another iconic American venue, Pebble Beach.

McDowell looks forward to the challenge of consistently finding the correct spots from which to play approach shots into greens shaped like upturned saucers and surrounded by shaved run-offs.

He enjoyed the run his ball got on hard, fast fairways, with one reservation: "I'm just worried that with no rough, this year's Open is going to give the bombers a little too much space. That's my only concern."

This will be music to the ears of guys like McIlroy, who believe "generous fairways will encourage guys to get the driver in their hands ... and you'll need to because if you're not hitting driver around here, it's an awfully long golf course."

Explaining how those yawing waste areas make Pinehurst different, McIlroy said: "When you hit it into the long rough at previous US Opens, you'd only one option – try and hack it back out onto the fairway and go from there.

"Here you might have a shot and you might not," he went on. "It's 50-50 whether you can get it up close to the green or you have to chip out, so there's a risk-reward element to it.

"Some of those areas are fine. You'll get a nice, clean hardpan lie, though if you get into these little wiregrass bushes, you can advance it only 40 or 50 yards. There'll really be a bit of luck involved going in there."

"Those upturned-saucer greens," he said, "lived up to everything I'd heard about Pinehurst and are exactly what you'd expect of a Donald Ross design.

"This is a really strong golf course which tests all aspects of your game, but the greens are its defence with all those run-off and everything. They're tricky and I think here, more than anywhere else, you have to play to the middle of greens.

Judging by video clips from Pinehurst, the left knee ligament sprain which surfaced during last Thursday's first round at Memorial still was apparent on Tuesday.

The cameras rolled as the 25-year-old took on the 17-foot putt at 18 which the late Payne Stewart famously sank for par and a one-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson at the '99 US Open.

After McIlroy missed this exceedingly difficult putt, it was concerning to note a slight limp as he walked after his ball and how he instinctively reached for that left knee after a constrained attempt to imitate Stewart's elaborate celebration.

A weekend rest should be invaluable to McIlroy, while Graeme McDowell gets his game face back on at FedEx St Jude in Memphis after three weeks at home with wife Kristin as they look forward to the birth of their first child in August.

McDowell missed the cut at Southwind last year, but shot 63 on Sunday to claim a share of seventh on his St Jude debut in 2009.

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