US Open: Ultimate test for Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy
It is not just nationality and friendship uniting Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell at the 111th US Open Championship.
They call America's national championship “golf's toughest major” and as far as tests go this pair of Ulstermen are being billed as facing perhaps the most arduous of their careers.
Appropriately enough for a course named in the honour of Congress, the inquiry will be both searching and very, very public.
One is depicted as the defending title-holder attempting to survive the glare and handle the traditional need to justify the champion' s standing; the other happens to be the boy who blew the Masters in spectacular and humiliating fashion and is being asked to prove the scars are not lasting. McDowell and McIlroy are up on capital hill ready to be shot at.
That's one way to look at. The pair have another viewpoint, which blessedly doesn't entail dusting off the cat-tails and beating themselves in recrimination. At 22, McIlroy is prepared to allow himself some slack, while McDowell believes any pressure has been lifted. All in all their attitude is good news for a European cause positively brimming with possibility, if not probability.
Still, there will be the imponderables to negotiate first and for McIlroy this entailed what advice he has for LeBron James, the basketball giant, who has reportedly not taken the defeat of Miami Heat in the recent NBA finals too graciously. America has rejoiced in McIlroy's response to his Masters demise and are holding him up as a role model.
Thus, a player barely out of his competitive nappies is pressed to give guidance to one of sport's superstars.
“I think he's been unfairly scrutinised,” said McIlroy taking to the task manfully. “Everyone is going to have bad days, if it's on a course or on a court. With sports these days everything is overanalysed.”
He could have been talking about his own Masters meltdown and at least it negated a few of the “what did you learn at Augusta?” queries. As, of course, did McIlroy's trip last week to Haiti as an ambassador of a children's charity.
McIlroy did not disappoint when encouraged to expand on the effects of such an eye-opening experience. “I thought I had perspective before going to Haiti, and then actually seeing it, it just gives you a completely different view on the world and the game that you play,” said McIlroy.
He went on to speak about the sanitation problems in the earthquake-ravaged country, talking passionately about the work being done. The plan is to return within a year.
McIlroy's work with Unicef is no doubt admirable — after all, how many sportsmen his age would donate anything other than their image to the cause, let alone things as precious as their time and sensitivity? — but the inevitable link with his major capitulation is, at best, opportunistic.
The truth is McIlroy does not play the shattered young man very well. He is trying to maintain a balance and on the flip side of the negative he shuts out what could be construed as the positive as well.
On Tuesday, Ernie Els, the champion the last time the US Open was held at Congressional 14 years ago, tipped his International Sports Management stablemate as a “future world No 1, without a doubt”. “He can really change history again,” added Els. “He's got that kind of talent . . . I think he's going to win a lot of majors.” McIlroy visibly squirmed when he was told of the comments.
“I've learned over the past few months you can't take a lot of notice of what other people say,” he said.
“It's very flattering and it's great that people are saying I'm going to win majors but I need to do it first. And I haven't done it yet.
“Hopefully I'll be sitting in front of the media on Sunday night and saying, ‘yeah, maybe I could be a multiple major champion’.”
The chances of such a scenario should not be discounted, no matter how freshly the images of that final-round 80 at Augusta hang in the mind. McIlroy finished in the top three in the two preceding majors — the USPGA at Whistling Straits and the Open at St Andrews — and in the words of his manager Chubby Chandler, “comes alive in the majors”.
Whereas most of his rivals were predicting level par to win this US Open, McIlroy set his sights higher and the winning score lower. “I reckon it will be a little under par,” said McIlroy. “I love this set-up.” His top-five finish at the Memorial two weeks ago was ideal preparation and the report from his camp is that the McIlroy mojo is back.
And so quite clearly is that of his great pal McDowell. So much for the crippling burden of expectation of becoming the first European in 40 years challenged with defending the US Open. He's been swaggering around here with all the freedom of a caddie lugging an empty holdall.
“It's bizarre because if anything I feel like the glare is off me this week,” said McDowell. “Having arrived here I feel a weight has been lifted. My US Open trophy is back with the USGA, the media stuff is over and I'm really happy it's all done because I want to look forward to what I want to achieve for the rest of my career. You know, it's tough to look forward when all anybody wants to discuss is the past. That's what it's been like. But now the talking has stopped, I feel less pressure.”
The Pebble Beach hangover clearly affected McDowell more than he let on. But then, that is reasonable. Sportsmen do not like to discuss the drawbacks of glory; or, indeed, of ignominy.
As one of the most honest and erudite characters on the circuit, McDowell is prepared to analyse the first five months of a campaign which acted as a brake on his expectations after the giddying, free-wheeling ride to the top of the game's order. McDowell began 2010 just inside the world's top 50 and finished it in the top five as the hero of the winning Ryder Cup team. It would be wrong to say 2011 has seen him jam into reverse, although the momentum has palpably left his surge.
“I guess I hit my brick wall and I've been trying to get over that wall ever since,” said McDowell. “Yeah, I've hit a rough patch this year, but I really felt my game coming around the last four or five weeks.
“That spell from the Players to Wales, I know in my heart how well I played, even though I got nothing out of that month. I blew it at the Players. The World Match Play is the World Match Play, Wentworth, I missed the cut by one having struck it as well as I have all year and Wales I blew it in the third round.
“I've turned a corner and I'm really excited about this week and then the summer.”
McDowell's newly-discovered confidence has not just come from the technical or the mental but also, as far as this staggering property is concerned, the external. It opened its arms to him when he signed in on Monday.
Two months ago, in his duties as defending champion, he turned up for the Media Day and received the golfing equivalent of a punch in the nose.
Then, Congressional was playing every inch, and beyond, of its 7,574 yards. “It's changed radically,” he said. “It's weird but the course doesn't feel that long any more. I hit an eight-iron into the 11th and at the Media Day I hit driver, three-wood — and I was short.
“Okay, it was playing downwind but it's amazing how a course can change. Now, I don't think length here will be a massive issue at all. Accuracy off the tee will be key, those greens are so firm you're going have to be able to control your flight. Someone asked me yesterday what type of player does this place favour. Well, it's certainly not a bomber.”
McIlroy is a bomber, McDowell is a plotter. The latter has his major, the former is still waiting. But for as many differences there are similarities, mostly concerning what they must or must not prove.
It just goes to show that at the US Open the demands never cease.