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Olympic ideal for McIlroy

IF Rory McIlroy dared to envisage a low-profile week at the Olympic Club in San Francisco as defending champion, that conception was crushed last night when he threw a ceremonial pitch in front of tens of thousands of San Francisco baseball fans.

The Rory roar will barely die down as he attempts to become the first player in 24 years to win back-to-back US Open titles.

The challenge does not end there, however. The Olympic Club was described by Sam Snead as "the graveyard by the sea". It is where favourites perish.

In the four US Opens held on this hilly layout, players of the calibre of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart saw leads collapse down the stretch. With unknowns such as Jack Fleck capitalising, the Olympic became "the birthplace of the rank outsider".

Considering McIlroy has missed three of his last four cuts, his chances of bucking the trend do not leap out. But something happened to the 23-year-old in Memphis last week, when he finished joint seventh. The organisers have seen to it that the tension is high. Tomorrow, the world No 2 is paired with the No 1, Luke Donald, and the No 3, Lee Westwood.

McIlroy must win to have the chance to claim back the mantle from Donald. Everywhere one looks, there seems something big riding on McIlroy's push for history. Even Tiger Woods did not win two majors before he was 24.

"Last week was good for Rory's confidence," said Woods. "He did some work at home from what I hear and went into Memphis and played great. It's going to serve him well this week."

But, as Woods pointed out, one of the toughest tasks in the game confronts his young rival. "It's not easy to do - this is probably the hardest test that we play all year," said Woods. "It's not like Augusta National where we're playing the same golf course, so what Curtis Strange did (winning the US Open in 1988 and 1989) - and then contended again in '90 - is awfully impressive. It's such a big test and such a grind. Some venues fit your eye, some don't."

McIlroy says the US Open does fit his eye, regardless of the venue favouring a player who fades.

"The course favours a left-to-right-shaped shot. It's something I'm sure all the guys who are playing this week have been working on, including myself," said McIlroy after practising with Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell and before heading off to the baseball to throw the ceremonial first pitch ahead of the San Francisco Giants v Houston Astros game.

"I didn't expect to be saying that before I got here - I thought there would be a lot more irons off tees.

"I reckon I'm going to use my driver eight or nine times. I'm coming in with the mindset that I'm going to attack the golf course and play aggressively when I can.

"Obviously, you have to be smart, but you've got to take your chances around here. It gives you a few opportunities where you can make birdies.

"The rough is not as bad as maybe in previous years. You can get away with some tee shots. Really you just need to know your way around and know where you can miss it.

"People say it's fiddly, but I'm going to try to take the course on. If you make some bogeys you can hide them with a few red numbers (birdies)."

Last week in Memphis, McIlroy was tied for the lead until going into the water and double-bogeying the final hole.

"It was a really good idea that I went there. I definitely feel more comfortable about my game than if I hadn't played.

"I'm feeling ready to go. The missed cuts were maybe what I needed - you've still got to work hard, put the time and effort in."

In the middle of the miserable run he had talked of possibly taking his eye off the ball.

"It's only natural you just start to question yourself and question your game a little bit, but I had a chance to win in Memphis and until the disappointing last few holes I felt like I played some really good golf."

When told of teenager Andy Zhang qualifying, he said: "When I was 14, I was preparing for my club championship," he said.

"So, I don't think I'm in the position to give him any advice."