Resilient Rory McIlroy can hang tough when US Open going gets rough
Rory McIlroy might be physically 100% 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 returns to action after a four-week break to treat the niggling stress fracture of the ribs that's allowed him to play just six events since January.
"The wet ones I've done all right at, the firm ones I haven't. Top 10 at Bethpage starting off. Pebble was tough, shot a couple of high scores there. Won at Congressional. And then... yeah, it's a weird one.
"I missed the cut at Olympic, and at Merion 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's 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 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 game plan 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 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 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."
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 more than the lateral hazard that McIlroy suggests.
"This hay is more than a stroke penalty because there may be nowhere to drop it," Rose said. "So it's 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.
"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 (Johnson) 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.
"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.
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," 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."
It's all new to 24-year old Wicklow man Paul Dunne, but having played in three Majors already as an amateur, he's not panicking about his US Open debut as a professional.
"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."