Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Graeme McDowell on course for US Open

In the swing: The Pinewood No2 course, scene of next week's US Open, is suited to Graeme McDowell
In the swing: The Pinewood No2 course, scene of next week's US Open, is suited to Graeme McDowell
Distracted: Rory McIlroy

FBI agents drop in on Phil Mickelson for a chat at Memorial, doing little to improve the Open champion's form in a muted season.

Rory McIlroy tweaks his knee and, less than 24 hours after humbling Muirfield Village with a stunning 63, posts a fumbling 78.

Masters winner Bubba Watson folds like a cheap tent after two awful tee shots on the back nine on Sunday, while World No 1 Adam Scott fades like a spectre down the stretch.

US Open champion Justin Rose doesn't even make the weekend at Memorial, his fate sealed by a quirky double-hit on Friday.

Across the ocean, FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai title-holder Henrik Stenson coughs up a glorious opportunity to claim his first professional win in his native Sweden.

What do these six fall guys have in common? In the absence of injured Tiger Woods, they lead the betting market for next week's US Open.

Woods pushed the boundaries so far, golf's elite now are expected to contend every time they tee it up. Tiger also made the game forget how difficult it actually is to seal the deal any given Sunday.

The bookies still must have favourites but this season's second Major is ripe for the picking, with Graeme McDowell looking as good as anyone for a repeat of his US Open success at Pebble Beach in 2010 on a Pinehurst No 2 Course that suits him nicely.

First, let's examine whatever happened to the likely lads.

RORY McILROY (US Open odds: 9/1 fav): Nine days ago, McIlroy was the hottest (active) golfer on the planet.

Super-boosted by his win in Europe's flagship BMW PGA just days after the break-up of his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki, the Holywood star looked unbeatable last Thursday as he opened The Memorial with a scintillating 63.

Yet the niggling knee injury he aggravated playing a full-blooded 3-wood off the seventh fairway on Thursday inevitably contributed to an abject 78 by McIlroy the following day and his eventual 15th place after a hit-and-miss 72 on Sunday.

McIlroy appeared distracted as he made three consecutive double-bogeys that ill-fated Friday afternoon, making one wonder if his dickey knee was to blame or, perhaps, delayed fallout from the recent upheaval in his personal life?

Though insisting he wasn't unduly troubled by the injury, the Ulsterman's admission that the strained medial collateral ligament was "not 100 per cent" gave concern.

The left knee is a pivotal stress point for the pro golfer, while feeling he's able to drive at full throttle is as critical to McIlroy as it would be to Lewis Hamilton.

ADAM SCOTT (12/1): Okay, it's churlish to pose questions about the Aussie's finishing barely a week after so brilliantly endorsing his elevation to World No 1 with victory at Colonial ... especially considering Scott's misfortune when his approach to 15 on Sunday hit the flag and rolled back off the green leading to the second of three consecutive bogeys.

Yet, for all his class, 2013 Masters champion Scott can wobble down the straight.

PHIL MICKELSON (18/1): FBI agents didn't tap Mickelson on the shoulder as he stood over a 10-foot putt on the course.

Yet their decision to speak with him after last Thursday's first round suggested the authorities were not unduly concerned about attracting attention to their investigation!

Mickelson insists he's "done absolutely nothing wrong" as the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission conduct a probe into alleged inside trading.

The golfer expressed determination not to let this matter interfere with the pursuit of his Holy Grail, the US Open title.

Yet as he (like McIlroy) embarked yesterday on a two-day recon mission at Pinehurst, Mickelson was burdened enough already by his need to rediscover the form and confidence which underpinned last July's Open victory at Muirfield in the face of his ongoing battle with psoriatic arthritis. BUBBA WATSON (25/1): As his second Masters title in April confirmed, Bubba's gloriously gifted.

Yet he still flies too much on a wing and a prayer to be a consummate finisher, especially at the likes of the US Open, golf's most mentally-demanding event. JUSTIN ROSE (25/1) and HENRIK STENSON (25/1): Both Europeans have yet to regain heady heights of last year. Rose says he's "90 per cent there" physically in his bid to recover from a shoulder injury.

Stenson, meanwhile, appeared ready to leapfrog Adam Scott to the top of the world at the Nordea Masters on Sunday but nervily failed to build on a positive start.

Stenson's forever capable of the spectacular but Rose is better suited to the hard road, provided he can hit that 100 per cent peak in time.

GRAEME McDOWELL (33/1): Temperamentally, few are better equipped for the US Open arena than McDowell, as he proved in 2010. Pebble Beach was reminiscent of his native Portrush and McDowell believes sweeping changes at Pinehurst No 2 to bring it more into line with the vision of its Scottish creator Donald Ross make it almost feel like home.

"Having seen the golf course, it sets up nicely for me," he explained. "Yes it's long but it'll be firm and fast. It's linksy around the greens, which I like; you've got to pace putt well, which I like, and you've got to be accurate off the tee," (which he is!).

With none of the usual cloying rough and large, sandy waste areas "it's going to be a different US Open for sure but I'm going to enjoy it," added G-Mac, who returns to action in Memphis this week well-rested after three weeks off and playing just eight times in a specially truncated early-season schedule this year.

In Tiger's absence, McDowell's as well equipped as anyone and better than most to eclipse the likely lads at Pinehurst next week.

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