Tiger Woods set to bare claws in bid for 15th Major title at Us PGA
When Rory McIlroy whipped off his cap to reveal his new haircut, there was no sign of the dark cloud you'd half expect to find hovering over his head at the moment – just a more closely mown crop of black hair than usual.
McIlroy explained he got his haircut for free, "which was kind of nice. I was getting a little hot under here so, yeah, it's better. There's still a little bit on the top but it's okay... short back and sides."
The 24-year-old Holywood native was grateful, it seemed, for a few moments of light relief at the end of a media grilling about his abject form in 2013.
Judging by his stout attempts at Oak Hill yesterday to put a brave face on a season of disappointment and discontent, McIlroy at least has managed to flick a switch in his head. Still, it's going to be infinitely more difficult for McIlroy to turn around his ailing golf game sufficiently to survive for all 72 holes at the US PGA championship on an attritional golf course.
The whole of America, it seems, is salivating over the prospect of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson going at it hammer and tongs in the season's fourth and final Major.
If the blunt and painful truth be told, few envisage McIlroy's role as defending champion this week extending much beyond the peripheral, like bringing back the Wanamaker Trophy in one piece and hosting Tuesday night's champions dinner.
The Ulsterman lies third, just behind Woods and Mickelson, in the world rankings. However, a vast chasm of confidence lies between McIlroy and the top two as Mickelson bristles with satisfaction after last month's British Open victory at Muirfield and Tiger struts like a peacock following his fifth win of the season at Firestone.
US Open winner Justin Rose and Masters champion Adam Scott fill the next two places in the global rankings but are leagues ahead of McIlroy when it comes to form and self-assurance following their Major breakthroughs this season.
The regularity with which Henrik Stenson has been hitting fairways and greens in regulation (likely to be a crucial factor with each putting surface here surrounded by a bottomless sea of rough) places the resurgent Swede alongside FedEx Cup holder Brandt Snedeker at the top of a long list of players who this week could swell the number of first-time Major winners to 16 in just 22 championships.
Considering he's a massive 30-over-par for the 10 rounds he's already played in the Major championship arena this season and that he complained of being "brain dead" and playing "thoughtless" golf as he missed the cut at Muirfield, McIlroy yesterday sounded a remarkable note of defiance as he addressed his prospects this week.
"I expect to play well this week and there's no reason I shouldn't as I have played a couple of practice rounds and I played really well this morning," he insisted. "So that's given me a nice little bit of positive momentum going into tomorrow.
"I'll go out there and play and just try and hit fairways. If I do that, then I'm looking to hit greens, move on to the next hole and try and do the same again.
"So I just really want to go out there and play golf and enjoy it," added McIlroy, who for the first time in months could be heard laughing out loud on the course on Tuesday as he played 18 holes with Shane Lowry and Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.
Lowry has an earthy sense of humour, evidenced by a tweet he posted overnight declaring, "Result! Have found Barry's Tea in a local store!!!" Not a bad golf game either, as evidenced by his 2009 victory in the Irish Open as an amateur and last October's first win as a pro in the Portugal Masters.
McIlroy was cheered by the Clara man's company that morning and by boyhood chum Harry Diamond off it here and in Firestone last week.
Diamond even accompanied him to Tuesday's dinner, also attended by 18 PGA champions, ranging from the youngest and newest, McIlroy, up to 1955 winner Doug Ford, who celebrated his 91st birthday by tucking into Irish beef and fried champ.
Recently, McIlroy said he got back in touch with his former self when he returned home the weekend before last to play a carefree round of golf at Clandeboye with Diamond and a couple of other friends.
"When I enjoy my golf that's when I bring the best out of myself," he said. "If something doesn't happen this week, then it's fine, but I know that's what I am building towards."
McIlroy's been watching videos this week of last year's record-shattering PGA championship victory at Kiawah Island to help recreate the mood of those heady days on the Atlantic Ocean shore. Asked how far away the magic he showed in winning by eight and marching straight to the top of the world is, McIlroy responded: "It's not that far."
Sadly, the rough seems a lot closer at Oak Hill, a course McGinley and Graeme McDowell say is close to the US Open in set-up and design, though the Portrush man added: "Merion was way tougher but this course is a lot fairer."
"There's a big onus on hitting fairways and greens around here," said McGinley, whose ventures into course design helped him build high regard for the old masters, including Oak Hill's prolific Scottish-born creator Donald Ross.
"It's old style and everything is there in front of you," the Dubliner explained. "It's not really tricked up – you know what you're getting with his greens.
"They're sloped from back to front so you've got to leave it below the hole and give yourself putts up the hill.
"Course management is important here and you can't go gung-ho at it," McGinley added. "It's all about positioning your ball. Oak Hill is entirely different from Muirfield but the challenge this week is similar – you must hit it in the fairway.
"If you miss a green, the position of your ball in relation to the hole and the tilt of the putting surface is far more significant than the lie you get in the rough."
McGinley declined to add his tuppence worth to the tidal wave of advice which threatened to carry McIlroy away in recent months as he struggled to rediscover his Midas touch.
"Everybody has got a comment on Rory and, to me, that's not helping him. So anything I say to him will be said in private," he explained.
"Yet there's not much for me to say. I played with Rory yesterday. He's playing nicely. He's not buzzing in confidence the way he was this time last year but, as I've said before, that's Rory. He turns it on like a switch. We've seen it in the past.
"That's what makes him so exciting and such an interesting guy. That's the way he is and that's the way he's going to be. He accepts that and moves on."
It's a truism in golf that if it takes months to build confidence, it can be shattered in five minutes. Given a choice, Oak Hill probably is the last place McIlroy should go to try and rebuild his.
With McDowell struggling for consistency, Padraig Harrington's game emasculated by his birdie famine, Lowry still finding his way in the Major championship arena and McGinley short of big-match action this season as he dealt with old injury issues and put the apparatus of his captaincy in place, there's little cause for Irish optimism.
If Darren Clarke can find fairways consistently and, with the help once again of Dr Bob Rotella, remains patient with his putter, his superior touch out of greenside rough could make him Ireland's top finisher, as he was at Muirfield.
As for Tiger and Phil, the prospect of a third career meeting between these two on Sunday at a Major (Woods held sway over Mickelson on Sunday at the 2001 and 2009 Masters) appears remote.
Mickelson has yet to win a US Open because it requires him to suppress his swashbuckling nature... and this week is a true US Open-style test.
The superior course-management skills shown by Tiger in victory at Sawgrass in May should help him plot a course to his long-awaited 15th Major title at Oak Hill, provided he rediscovers his touch with the putter.
1 Tiger Woods
2 Henrik Stenson 3 Justin Rose
4 Brandt Snedeker 5 Ian Poulter
Live, Sky Sports 1, 6.0
Belfast Telegraph Digital