Rory McIlroy: 'I've let the US Open get into my head'
Rory McIlroy might be physically 100 percent fit for the US Open but he admits that the mental grind of golf's toughest test has left him waving the white flag more often than he'd like.
When he's in full flow, the Co Down star is the most majestic sight in golf - his booming drives, sky-high long irons and unerring putting coming to him without apparent effort.
When the going gets tough, he's the first to admit that he can be guilty of quickly losing heart; a trait that's been shown up in the US Open more than at any other Major.
"Yeah, look, I've had a mixed bag here at the US Open," McIlroy said in the build up at Erin Hills, where he returns to action after a four-week break to treat the niggling stress fracture of his ribs that has allowed him to play just six events since January.
"The wet ones I've done alright at, the firm ones I haven't. Top-10 at Bethpage (Black in 2009) starting off. Pebble (2010) was tough, shot a couple of high scores there. Won at Congressional (2011). And then... yeah, it's a weird one.
"I missed the cut at Olympic (2012), and at Merion (2013) I did okay but my driver face cracked on the third hole on the third round, so that didn't help.
"I don't know. This is one of those tournaments that if you let it get into your head, I feel like you're already defeated before your tee off.
"And there have been a couple of times where I have let it get in my head."
Rain or shine, McIlroy's record at the US Open is nothing to shout about.
Since he romped to that record-setting, eight-stroke victory at Congressional Country Club in 2011 his record reads: Cut, T41, T23, T9, Cut.
Little wonder he's admitted that it is almost a relief to see his name on the US Open trophy.
"Came off the green on the last there (in '11) and said to JP (Fitzgerald, his caddie), 'Thank God I've got one of these',"McIlroy said at Chambers Bay two years ago. "I'm glad my name is on the trophy at least once and I'll try to make it twice at some point."
Could this be the week?
If fortune favours the brave, McIlroy has courage in spades and his gameplan appears to be predicated on attack.
His prowess on long, rain-softened Major venues is well known and perhaps the only unknown quantity is how well he copes with Erin Hills' tactical nuances and how well his newly-acquired TaylorMade Spider Tour Red putter behaves.
So far, he's off to a winner, calling out the players who've complained about the high rough.
"That's why I feel like some of the players this week, the rough's already got into their head," he said. "That's not the way you want to start off."
With heavy rain taking the sting out of its billowing fairways, little wind forecast and the greens more receptive that in previous years, 2015 champion Jordan Spieth sees the winner getting well into the red.
"I don't see par winning the tournament," said Spieth, who is the second favourite with the bookies to win his third Major behind the world No 1 Dustin Johnson and just ahead of McIlroy.
"I see closer to five to 10-under. Someone who has very good control of the ball off the tee will have plenty of opportunities to make birdies, given the conditions that we're expecting."
Aggressive play that doesn't pay off will be severely punished and 2013 champion Justin Rose will be erring on the side of caution with the heavy rough.
"This hay is more than a stroke penalty because there may be nowhere to drop it," Rose said. "Or you might be forced to have a couple of goes at it out of the hay. So it really is paramount to keep the ball in play, as it was at Merion."
The USGA likes the winning score to be around even par but this year, USGA Executive Director and CEO Mike Davis says they are more concerned with getting players to wear out all 14 clubs in their bag.
Shane Lowry, who had a four-shot lead after 54 holes last year before finishing second, is genuinely clueless about what kind of score will be required to win this year.
Tied-ninth at Chambers Bay and a runner-up behind Johnson last year, Lowry is clearly a player to watch, but he very much feels that he's heading into the unknown.
"I don't know what it is going to play like," said Lowry, who is happy to be among the afternoon starters as it gives him a chance to see how the course plays. "Dustin drives the ball well and he can shoot seven under.
"If I drive the ball well, the greens are as pure as you can get so there are no excuses there. And the fairways are generous so that you can hit your driver.
"In a way, it is nice being out in the afternoon on Thursday because you get to see what the scoring is going to be like.
"I went out at Congressional when Rory won thinking I need to make pars.
"All of a sudden I shot one over and was pretty happy and I was lying 50th and miles off the leaders. It's nice to be able to see scoring and what people are doing."
The tougher the test, the more Lowry thrusts back his shoulders, but Erin Hills is far more than an examination of your ball-striking.
It's also a physical and mental inquisition and that will be a challenge for everyone from Johnson and McIlroy to Greystones' Paul Dunne, who is making his professional debut in a Major.
It's all new to the 24-year-old, but having played in three Majors already as an amateur, he's not panicking about his US Open debut.
"I feel more comfortable (than at the Open), I don't feel overwhelmed by anything. Obviously, it is a different type of Major but I have played a lot of American style golf courses in college.
"Visually it's Irish, but plays it American. I think it sets up well for me."
Masters champion Sergio Garcia failed 73 times before he finally hooked the big one at Augusta National in April and if the Spaniard learned anything that week, it's that patience is a virtue in Majors.
"Every week is different, so some weeks you feel a bit calmer than others, and your patience is better," Garcia said. "Hopefully this week will be one of those weeks where I feel calm and collected, and my patience level is way, way high."
US Open Sky Sports, Live 6.0
Erin hills - four holes from hell
Erin Hills might look beautiful but the 7,741-yard monster has the teeth to take the world's best players.
While it's the first par-72 US Open test since Tom Kite won at Pebble Beach in 1992, it has two par-fives measuring over 600 yards, enough deep fescue grass to feed every horse in Ireland and 138 penal bunkers.
"Tour pros who normally don't mind finding bunkers if they miss a green will now have to suffer the consequences," said the USGA's Mike Davis
"You're going to see shots this year out of the bunker that you've never seen before, and comments from pros that you've never heard before either - some of which won't be complimentary."
4th Hole, Par 4, 439 Yards
With brutal rough lining the fairway from tee to green, the USGA cut back the fescue around the landing area on Tuesday. It's still a potential card-wrecker with a two-tier green and a deep bunker in the middle of the fairway set to catch out the long hitters.
9th, Par 3, 165 Yards
Just a short iron in calm conditions but if the wind blows, club selection will be critical as players hit from a tee set 26ft about a green surrounded by seven punishing bunkers.
14th, Par 5, 613 Yards
The landing area is just 12 yards wide making an aggressive tee shot a massive gamble when the winds blow. Players who go for the green in two must avoid a deep run-off area on the right.
18th, Par 5, 663 Yards
Arguably the toughest hole on the course, nests of bunkers and deep rough await anything hit off-line. With the green sloping away from the players from front right to back left, going for it in two is a high-risk strategy.