Rory McIlroy in 'sleeper' mode as Mickelson relishes early rise
Trust Rory McIlroy, pint-sized revolutionary that he is, to redefine the very art of links golf. It used to be, in Tom Watson's era, that a bouncy, burnt-out layout such as Chambers Bay could only be conquered by low scuttlers and Texas wedges, by drives bored beneath the breeze and iron shots kept tight to the ground with a hooded face.
McIlroy, though, has never been one to cleave to the conventional wisdom. Instead he launched his opening salvo on this US Open with all the usual armoury, hitting tee-shots so far they almost landed in Canada and sending his medium irons so high they seemed to be descending from the upper ionosphere.
Then again, Chambers Bay cannot be approached with the standard links mentality. Such is Robert Trent Jones's fiendishly intricate design, an 18-hole walk around here measures 10 miles rather than the customary five, while those players fortunate to survive all four days will find that the combined upward slog is equivalent to climbing a mountain.
The stark changes in elevation befuddled even McIlroy yesterday, as the desiccated fairways flung the ball around like pinball tables.
Watching helplessly as his approach to the par-four 13th took one giant hop into the sand, McIlroy turned to caddie J P Fitzgerald to say: "But I hit it well." That might be so, but the dramatic cross-slopes that cut across Chambers Bay refuse to let the ball rest. Purely-struck shots are no guarantee of success without doctorate-level knowledge of every vicissitude this peculiar course can muster. That is why Phil Mickelson, who surged briefly into the early lead in his quest to complete a career grand slam, has spent months gathering reconnaissance on the place.
McIlroy has not been quite so assiduous in preparation, restricting himself to a few practice rounds to acquire a feel for this quirkiest of US Open tests. He needed a rest, he explained, after two miserable missed cuts at Wentworth and an Irish Open where he was meant to be the host with the most.
He looked the better for it yesterday, but wobbled on the way home, dropping shots on the seventh and ninth (having started on 10) to return a two-over 72.
McIlroy was far from flawless but conjured enough flourishes to suggest that his finest US Open pedigree had returned. Since he waltzed to an eight-shot triumph at Congressional in 2011, he has failed even to break into the top 20 on his last three appearances. But Chambers Bay, for all its maverick interpretations of what a links means, plays more to the natural strengths of a reigning Open champion.
From tee to green McIlroy's timing was as luscious as ever, but he had yet to master the pace of these arid putting surfaces, which sped up as a balmy Pacific wind blew in across Puget Sound. Starting from the 10th in a shotgun start, he missed a four-footer at the 15th and spurned a precious chance of a birdie at the third as a straightforward eight-footer drifted tamely by.
It was at the long par-fives where he should have plundered most aggressively, but at the 18th, playing all of its 618 yards after McIlroy deposited his colossal drive into a bunker, he again allowed his birdie putt to slide by.
McIlroy was not even playing professionally when Tiger Woods delivered a surgical masterclass to win the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool. But he has invoked the memory of that Hoylake heatwave this week, recognising the premium he must put upon patience if he is to prevail here for his fifth Major title.
He has learnt much, it appears, from Muirfield in 2013, when he collapsed to a first-round 79 in one of his most mentally inept displays.
This was not the explosive start that McIlroy delivered four years ago en route to his US Open triumph in Maryland, but perhaps it did not have to be. While he won his first three Majors through consummate exhibitions of front-running, he also proved in last summer's USPGA at Valhalla that he was just as adept at emerging stealthily from the pack. And McIlroy was poised last night, the definition of what is known in golf as a 'sleeper'.
It is curious to recall how, in 2011, as McIlroy beat his retreat from a rain-lashed Royal St George's, he drew all manner of derision for arguing that he was tired of links golf and could not wait to fly back to the comforts of manicured Bermuda grass in the US. That attitude has turned 180 degrees now that he clasps the Claret Jug, and McIlroy demonstrated by this doughty round under the Washington State clouds that he was ready to wrestle his latest links challenge with relish.
Graeme McDowell will have to do some wrestling of his own as he slumped to a four-over 74, leaving him with a battle to make the cut.
Mickelson, who has finished runner-up a record six times, was among the early starters and took advantage of flat calm conditions to reach the turn in three-under par. He surrendered two shots on the way home to register a one-under-par opening tally and give himself the perfect start.
"(But) no complaints. I'm under par in the first round of the US Open and I am pretty pleased," Mickelson said.
"I thought it was a very fair test. The set-up was good. I think everyone in the field is going to struggle with three to eight-foot putts when they are downhill because you can't hit it hard enough to hold the line and there is a lot of wiggle."
Sky Sports 4, 4.30