Wednesday 18 September 2019

World's best brace for test of mental and physical resolve

Ahead of the US Open, McIlroy suspects the USGA think the players are better than they are

Rory McIlroy: ‘I see this as one of my favourite golf courses in the world’
Rory McIlroy: ‘I see this as one of my favourite golf courses in the world’

Dermot Gilleece

On first seeing Shinnecock Hills 23 years ago, my impression was one of thrilling difference. Here was a championship course where well-directed drives had to find the distant landing areas, rather than having them rolled out conveniently from the tee.

Small wonder that Rory McIlroy has fallen in love with the place. With its reward for dominance off the tee, he sees it as an ideal opportunity of bridging the gap back to his last Major triumph in August 2014.

And his preparation could hardly be more thorough. After weekend rounds of 64 and 69 to be tied eighth in the Memorial Tournament, he arrived last Sunday evening to a rented house on Long Island, close to Shinnecock where he has remained since. In fact he will be there until his US Open challenge is completed.

"I see this as one of my favourite golf courses in the world," he told me last week. "It's tricky, especially in exposed areas if the wind blows, but it is essentially a tactical challenge, what I would consider a true US Open venue. I'm really looking forward to it."

Phil Mickelson, a six-time runner-up in the blue riband of American golf, was similarly effusive. Describing it as the greatest set-up in his 26-year experience of the championship, he said: "I think it will reward the best player. Skill is going to be the primary factor this week. The set-up is just tremendous."

It seems that the USGA hierarchy have learned lessons from some decidedly questionable offerings in recent years. Yet fear remains of a reaction to the 16-under-par winning score from Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills 12 months ago. Historically, such figures are alien to USGA thinking.

Either way, they are breaking new ground in eventually abandoning their 18-hole play-off procedure. And just to be different from the Open Championship and its four-hole aggregate; the PGA Championship with its three-hole aggregate and the sudden-death of the US Masters, they've opted for a two-hole aggregate. In fact, the format has already been used in the US Women's Open which went a further two holes of sudden-death before Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn triumphed at Shoal Creek last weekend.

"We thought that by having two holes, there would be more excitement," said USGA executive director, Mike Davis. "And if there's a tie this year after 72 holes, we're going to play the 17th, a wonderful par-three, and then the 18th, a great finishing hole."

Great finishes do much to burnish a venue's reputation, however strong its status. So it was in 1995 when the challenge seemed a perfect fit for the long, straight driving of Greg Norman, only for the short-hitting Corey Pavin to claim a surprise victory.

Faced with a second shot of 209 yards to the par-four 72nd, he considered a two-iron which was dismissed by his caddie. He then settled on his trusty, 17-degree Cleveland four metal-wood and hit a glorious low draw which cheated gusty cross-winds to pitch the ball short of the green.

It then bounded up to the hole, coming to rest only five feet away, and two putts were enough to give him a closing 68 and a level-par aggregate for a one-stroke victory over Norman. And to think that today's longer hitters would need no more than a six or seven iron, where Pavin was hitting wood!

That was a time when nearly-man Norman was the endorsement king, a point brought home to me when I stayed on in Manhattan for a few days after the championship. While there, I happened to drop into Bloomingdale's on Lexington Avenue where the entire second floor was given over to two major displays.

One was for neckties and cravats endorsed by Frank Sinatra and the other half was for clothing and equipment endorsed by the Shark. Out of curiosity, I asked the manager of the Shark Department if it mattered that Norman had been beaten by Pavin for the US Open title. "Not really," he replied. "What mattered was that he was on television."

Nine years later, I was back at Shinnecock to see Retief Goosen deliver a magnificent putting display when winning the title by two strokes from Mickelson, with Tiger Woods back in a tie for 17th. Outside the ropes, memories were revived of David O'Leary's penalty-kick exploits in Italia 90, on meeting him by the putting green with his friend, Lee Westwood.

As manager of Aston Villa, O'Leary was attempting to lower his golf handicap of 14 through visits to such splendid establishments as Pine Valley. "I cannot handle the pressure of competitive golf - it reduces me to a jelly," said the player who displayed nerveless composure in that shoot-out against Romania. "I suppose it all comes down to having confidence in what you're doing."

O'Leary added: "The truth is that I have enormous admiration for the skill of these players. I like to think I could hit a football any way I wanted, but the skill level at golf is another matter."

Irish representation in this, the ninth staging at Shinnecock, is limited to McIlroy and Shane Lowry, who was desperate to get through qualifying, having been tied second behind Dustin Johnson at Oakmont two years ago.

"It means the world to me to be heading for Shinnecock," said the player who could use a lift in fortunes at this time. "As far as I can gather, it's a proper, established US Open venue which should be a terrific experience."

He will be facing a much-changed stretch, a par-70 of 7,445 yards which has been lengthened from 6,944 in 1995 and 6,996 in 2004. Ten new tees have achieved the most significant increases on the 14th, which is now a downhill par-four of 519 yards (from 443), and the 16th, where an additional 76 yards has created a formidable 616-yard par five.

Meanwhile, some severe trimming of fringes has rendered the greens not unlike the domed surfaces at Pinehurst No 2, which Tom Watson described as "rejection architecture". All of which is down to the celebrated design partnership of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and brings to mind Gentle Ben's one-time assessment of the US Open as "like playing golf in a straitjacket."

With an average fairway width of 41 yards against the 25 of former years, this week's Shinnecock is some way removed from a competitive straitjacket. The stated objective of additional length was to restore shot-values, as Augusta National have done quite effectively over the last 20 years.

"Shinnecock Hills is going to be a wonderful canvas on which to present the ultimate test of golf," was the grand assessment by USGA rules official, Jeff Hall. "Make no mistake about it, the US Open is a grind, an emotional roller-coaster. It's about testing the players' shot-making, their golf course management skills and their mental and physical resolve."

Which is what concerns McIlroy. "I suspect the USGA think we're better than we actually are," said the 2011 champion. "It's a collective thought process. Why can't they simply get the fairways sort of firm, grow the rough, put the pins in some tough but fair locations, and then let us go play?"

Even at his tender years, McIlroy should know that golf's blazers simply don't function that way. Especially when wearing the crest of the USGA.

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