Tiger Woods has replaced Rory McIlroy as man to beat in the US Open, writes Dermot Gilleece
Rory McIlroy has had to make a fairly dramatic transition from prodigy to pragmatist during a troubled build-up to his defence of the US Open championship starting at The Olympic Club, San Francisco on Thursday. It is certainly far removed from what he might have imagined after a record-breaking victory 12 months ago.
Indeed much has changed only in the last month. Prior to the Players Championship at Sawgrass, McIlroy was 8/1 favourite for San Francisco. But as a consequence of three successive missed cuts from the 23-year-old, and a breathtaking climax to the Memorial Tournament last Sunday, he has now slipped to joint fourth in the betting at 16/1 behind new 5/1 favourite -- Tiger Woods.
This is the 112th US Open and devotees will be aware that two of the four stagings at The Olympic Club have gone to play-offs which, with the USGA, are of the Monday, 18-hole variety. In fact, when it first went there in 1955, Jack Fleck had a shock play-off win over Ben Hogan.
Which caused something of a problem for veteran scribe Bob Drum. Having, as a dutiful husband, telephoned his wife at their Pittsburgh home to advise her he would be delayed, she promptly accused him of lying and skulduggery, pointing out that NBC had reported a Hogan victory. So Drum was prepared for squalls when he eventually got home. Happily, however, his wife learned that NBC had wrongly predicted a Sunday play-off (the fourth round was played on Saturday back then) and greeted Drum with welcoming arms. Or so we're told.
Ireland's four challengers include the 2010 champion Graeme McDowell, three-time Major winner Pádraig Harrington, and debutant Peter Lawrie, who came through recent qualifying. Darren Clarke has withdrawn on medical advice because of a groin injury.
When Harrington's erstwhile coach Bob Torrance talked about the making of a champion, he would repeatedly highlight the distinction between a good golfer and a great golfer. "A good golfer," the grizzled Scot would say, "can play great golf when he's in the right mood; a great golfer can play great golf when he wants to."
These words have acquired a decidedly fresh resonance through recent happenings. We need only contemplate the amazing holed pitch from Woods on the short 16th at Muirfield Village last Sunday to create a picture of true golfing greatness. With that one stroke of brilliance, he turned possible defeat into glorious triumph. Against that, there has been the apparent inability of leading Irish exponents to make things happen.
Without in any way diminishing the six remarkable Major successes in recent years, one is forced to question the ease with which the word "great" has been associated with them. The harsh reality is that McIlroy is the only one likely to join the fairly short list of all-time international greats. And that will happen only if he acquires a competitive determination to match his prodigious golfing talent.
Great players don't make a habit of rounds in the high 70s, as he has been doing in recent weeks. Even on courses they dislike, they find a way of grinding out a score against the odds, as Seve Ballesteros did to such heartwarming effect and which Woods has also demonstrated, much to his credit.
I'm reminded of Jack Nicklaus in the 1981 Open Championship at Royal St George's, a course some way down his list of favourites. On receiving word from home that one of his sons was in trouble with the police, the Bear proceeded to shoot an opening round of 83, leaving him 13 strokes behind the leader.
But even with his chance of the title almost certainly gone, he still battled to a marvellous second-round 66, made the cut and eventually finished tied 23rd.
McIlroy's Major finishes since his triumph at Congressional are: The Open, T25th; PGA, T64th; US Masters, T40th. As it happens, the best Major performance by any of our leading quartet in the wake of their successes has been Harrington's share of eighth place in this year's Masters, which earned him $232,000.
Having taken McIlroy under his wing, the Bear felt moved to rap his young friend on the knuckles when they appeared together recently on American television. Nicklaus couldn't understand why he was playing the St Jude Classic this weekend instead of getting in some early preparation at The Olympic Club.
McIlroy's response was to head there last Saturday after missing the cut in The Memorial. As he explained: "I played at Olympic on Saturday evening and again on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. So I got three good days there and it was good to get a feel for the golf course."
He went on: "I did a lot of good work with my coach Michael Bannon right there in San Francisco, though it wasn't the way I wanted to spend last weekend. And by getting competitive rounds in Memphis this week, I think I've sort of killed two birds with the one stone."
As it happens, the young Holywood star is clearly getting the competitive action he desired in Memphis. Not only did he survive his first half-way cut in four successive tournaments, he did so as the halfway leader.
When I first visited the Olympic Club for the 1981 US Amateur Championship, it measured 6,656 yards and was known as the "longest short course in the world". Now a par-70 of 7,163 yards (373 yards longer than in 1998), it remains short by US Open standards, yet is certain to present a searching test, largely because of the tight, tree-lined nature of the layout.
In preparation for this week, when the course is expected to be firm and fast, all 18 greens have been re-laid with a hybrid bent grass replacing the traditional meadowgrass. Green-speeds are expected to be in the region of 11.5 to 12.0 on the Stimpmeter. Meanwhile, there is also a completely new eighth hole, a par three of 200 yards.
"Last year, I suggested that Congressional would favour a long, high-ball hitter, and we got Rory as champion," said Mike Davis, executive director of the US Golf Association. "This year I can see a short-ball hitter winning, a long-ball hitter or somebody in between. I see it as a real shotmaker's course where the ability to control and manoeuvre the ball both right-to-left and left-to-right will be rewarded."
This has to do with seven of the 14 driving holes being dog-legs, where the challenge is heightened by the fact that on some of them the fairway cants in the opposite direction. And the 5-5-4 finish is especially interesting, not least for the fact that, at 355 yards, the 18th remains one of the shortest finishing holes in championship golf.
It's not the sort of course where you would expect Woods to do well. Indeed, with his Butch Harmon swing, he failed to break 70 in any round of the 1998 US Open when he was tied 18th behind Lee Janzen. Still, the recently-acquired Sean Foley method was impressively accurate around Muirfield Village.
Nothing demonstrated the Woods well-being better, however, than that extraordinary shot on the 16th. The unique explosive talent which swept him to the top of his craft was unquestionably back. Indeed so much of the old Tiger was in evidence that thoughts immediately leapt forward to this week.
Can this be Major number 15? As they say in the States, all bets are off. We could be about to witness the beginning of the Woods conquest, Mark II.
Sunday Indo Sport