Sport Golf

Saturday 17 February 2018

Rory McIlroy sets sights on US Open title

Rory McIlroy reacts after missing a putt during a practice round at Oakmont. Photo: John Minchillo/AP
Rory McIlroy reacts after missing a putt during a practice round at Oakmont. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Rory McIlroy tips the world golfing elite to decide the outcome of the 116th US Open on a daunting test of golf at Oakmont Country Club.

Liam Kelly

McIlroy expects the main threat to his hopes of victory will come from inside the top ten in the rankings, headed by world No 1 Jason Day, and the No 2 and reigning champion Jordan Spieth.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

No surprise there. It's just that very politely and diplomatically, McIlroy rules out the likelihood of any mid-table players or shock movers from the lower end of the rankings causing an upset at this iconic US Open venue.

Throw in, perhaps, Branden Grace (12), an emotional vote for Phil Mickelson, six times a runner-up and bidding for his first US Open at age 46, an Irish heart-rules-the-head hope for Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry, and that's about it from the crystal ball if we follow McIlroy's analysis.

The problem for the majority of the 156 starters, which includes 11 amateurs, is that McIlroy's verdict stands up to scrutiny.

"You look at the list of winners here at Oakmont, and even (Angel) Cabrera last time in '07, at that point in his career, when he won, he was one of the best in the world.

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"I would expect that the more established players in the game and the players that are up near the top of the world rankings to do well this week, because it is a golf course that can separate the players that are playing well from the players that are just slightly off their games.

"I think that's one of the things this week you'll see. If guys are playing well and they're confident, you'll maybe get it around in under par.

"But the guys that are struggling, it will really magnify that weakness, and you'll see a lot of high scores as well," said McIlroy.

Sloping, narrow fairways, tricky slopes on super-fast greens and thick rough are the main elements that make Oakmont so tough.

It was ever thus, right from the founding of the club which opened in 1904.

Henry Clay Fownes, a wealthy industrialist, was the driving force behind the establishment of Oakmont.

Fownes' attitude to the game was summed up by two famous quotes attributed to him - "a shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost" and "let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside."

Not much has changed in 112 years.

John Zimmers, the course superintendent at Oakmont, had good news and bad news for the US Open competitors.

The good news was: "We aren't looking to trick things up for the world's best golfers. We're not looking for goofy golf."

And the bad news?

"The players' perspective might be that if they missed by two yards, they should be rewarded.

"Oakmont, however, doesn't reward near perfect shots," he said.

Visually, the layout from the elevated perspective of the clubhouse area is impressive.

Most of the greens can be seen in panoramic views across the 200-acre site, and that is no accident.

Oakmont was originally built on pasture land with very few trees. Over time, some members felt that the layout would be enhanced by a tree-planting programme.

The trees grew and flourished through the decades, until a change of heart resulted in the removal over the last 20 years of around 15,000 trees.

Mother Nature might not approve, and conservationists would be appalled, but there it is: a golf course that Rory McIlroy considers must be tougher for the amateur members to play than the professional stars of the game here this week.

"I think one of the real challenges about this golf course, especially after they've taken so many trees away, is it's a big, wide open space now.

"You're hitting into these tight fairways, and there's not really a whole lot of definition out there, so you have to be so zoned in to where you want your targets to be.

"It's probably a little easier for us this week than it is for the members because we have grandstands to hit at, and TV towers and whatever, whereas members play this course day in and day out, and they don't have anywhere to hit at out there.

"It's really hard to hit your targets off the tees and into the greens," said McIlroy.

The world No 3 acknowledges that slightly softer receptive courses suit his game.

He might get an early bonus because the course could soften up due to thunderstorms forecast for this afternoon.

If they hit as badly as anticipated, the morning starters, including McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Masters champion Danny Willett, Rickie Fowler, and Jordan Spieth, could get their rounds played just in time.

Those with later tee-times, such as Jason Day, Graeme McDowell and Adam Scott, might not even start their first round today. It's all in the lap of the weather gods.

Barring any freak outcomes due to adverse weather, experience combined with class should tell at Oakmont.

It usually does, as Ben Hogan (1953), Jack Nicklaus (1962), 63-shooter Johnny Miller in 1973, Ernie Els (1994), and Angel Cabrera (2007) have shown in the last five US Opens staged here.

Jason Day is the bookies' favourite, followed by McIlroy and Spieth.

Dustin Johnson has all the qualities needed to be the champion, but is in danger of emulating Sergio Garcia as one of the best golfers never to win a Major title.

Shane Lowry feels positive about his putting and looks to this week to kick-start his season.

"It is one of those weeks where there will be a lot of broken men leaving here on Sunday evening, and on Friday evening as well.

"I just have to get on with it. This is the only week that's going to be this tough this year. I really feel I'm going to enjoy the challenge," he said.

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