Rory McIlroy isn’t bothered that he missed the cut in his last two starts at the BMW PGA Championship and the Irish Open. The slate is wiped clean for him after taking a break from competitive golf the past few weeks before he flew into the Seattle area on Friday evening to kick off his preparations for the U.S. Open. More important, McIlroy seems to like Chambers Bay after playing two rounds over the weekend and says it suits his game.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I got here,” said McIlroy at his pre-tournament presser on Tuesday morning. “I got to the course on Saturday morning, and I mean it’s a pure links golf course. Every part of this golf course is fescue. You get fescue in the United States just on sort of the surrounding areas of the golf course, but here fairways, greens, aprons, everything, everything is fescue. It’s really like playing an Open Championship in the United States. That’s what it’s going to be like this week, apart from the fact that it’s about 20 degrees warmer.
“I really like the golf course. I think it sets up well for my game. You’ve got to be aggressive off the tee. You’ve got to hit driver. I think it’s a course where you’re going to see a lot of guys hit fairways and hit greens. But when you hit greens, you can still be 50, 60 feet away from the pin. So if you can drive the ball well and your pace putting and long putting is sharp, I think they’re going to be two really key things this week to be successful.”
McIlroy, who is considered one of the longest hitters in the game, joined the bevy of players who insist that length is big advantage at Chambers Bay.
“It’s a very long golf course,” said the world no. 1. “You’re wanting to hit shorter irons into these greens. Some of these greens, where I’m hitting maybe a 6- or a 7-iron in, a lot of the field are going to be going in with 5- and 4-irons. It’s tough enough going in there with the clubs I’m going in with. Yeah, I mean, I completely agree with Jason. Guys that hit the ball a long way — I think if you can carry the ball like 295, 300 in the air this week, you’re going to have a big advantage.”
Ryan Moore contested that bombers wouldn’t necessarily have an upper hand. “As firm as it is already, I don’t think it really matters to have a lofted club into a green, because you’re not going to stop it anyways,” said Moore on Monday. “You can hit a full sand wedge and it’s rolling 10 or 15 yards, at least.”
McIlroy also believes that Chambers Bay plays like a true links course — even more than some actual links courses.
“It plays more like a links course than some links courses,” he proclaimed. “I mean, it’s so fast, so firm. It reminds me of 2013 at Muirfield at the Open. Was it ’06 at Hoylake when Tiger won there? It reminds me like that. The course is getting burned out, it’s getting dry. It’s a pure links test this week.”
Prior to his Open Championship victory last year at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake), McIlroy had mixed results at the major that is contested on links tracks annually. Though McIlroy hails from Northern Ireland, he grew up on a parkland course, Holywood Golf Club, just outside Belfast. In 2010 at the Open at St. Andrews, McIlroy finished T3 and probably would’ve won the event had it not been for the 80 he shot in the second round due to extreme weather conditions. Following that in 2011 and 2012, he placed T25 and T60, respectively, at the Open Championship. Then, he missed the cut at Muirfield in 2013 — when Phil Mickelson hoisted the Claret Jug — but McIlroy insists that he’s a completely different golfer than he was two years ago and he certainly doesn’t foresee a reoccurrence of that unfortunate week for him.
“I’m a completely different player,” said McIlroy. “I’m in a completely different place. No, I had no control of my golf game at that point in time, and I feel like I’m pretty much in full control of it at the minute. I can tell you, no, a repeat of that is definitely not going to happen.”
He feels even more comfortable coming in as the reigning Open Champion.
“In a way it’s not too dissimilar to Hoylake,” said McIlroy. “And I felt like at Hoylake I didn’t need to change my game that much or adapt my game that much to how I played it in relatively benign conditions last year in Liverpool. We had a lot of rain overnight which made the course a little bit softer, which isn’t really what this is going to be like this week. But coming in as The Open champion, I know that I’ve had success on links golf before, and I’ve grown up playing it, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to use that to my advantage in some way.”
As mentioned above, McIlroy went through a rough patch last month in Europe, missing two straight cuts — his last two dress rehearsals prior to the season’s second major at Chambers Bay. However, those instances were likely an anomaly and a result of fatigue since those were his fourth and fifth straight weeks playing competitive golf. Prior to those abysmal performances, McIlroy had won two of his last three starts at the WGC-Match Play Championship and the Wells Fargo Championship. He also finished in the top-10 at The Players Championship.
“I think it was my mind had enough golf rather than my body,” said McIlroy. “Honestly, I sort of had to get back, especially after playing at County Down, just to get back to playing my normal game, hitting shots the way I like to see them, swinging the way I want to swing. Not really trying to play these little half shots or trying to play the ball along the ground. Even this week I was expecting to have to play the ball along the ground more.
“But looking at all these elevated greens and looking at the way this course sets up, you really — and especially with the way that the weather conditions are going to be, you’re not going to have to do that too much because the greens are so firm. Anyone that can get elevation on their iron shots and get a little spin on the ball that’s the way you’re going to get it close to these pins. All I tried to do last week was just get back to playing my normal game, and I think that’s the way I’m going to do well this week.”
After missing those cuts, McIlroy spent some time in Europe as a tourist in London before he returned to Florida to practice. He also had some sponsor commitments and a visit to Whistling Straits for media day last Friday ahead of the 2015 PGA Championship.
Unlike the hype and hubbub around McIlroy leading up to the Masters this past April, where he was trying to complete the career grand slam, he enters the U.S. Open relatively quietly and perhaps even flying under the radar a bit. (I wouldn’t count him out this week.) He feels much more at ease this week, with fewer eyes and expectations on him, which is very likely a positive for him.
“It’s much quieter,” said McIlroy when asked to compare the contrast of coming into the first two majors of the season.
There are massive benefits to that for him in his preparation.
“(I’m) just able to go about my business,” he said. “And obviously not fly under the radar, but there’s not as much attention or much hype. I can get here and just do my thing without much worry. And I guess, as well, there’s not as much on my mind about what I can achieve. It’s hugely important, a chance to win a second U.S. Open and the fifth major, and that’s all important, but there was just so much hype and so much attention around Augusta, this one feels very different.”
Perhaps with less eyes on McIlroy, he’ll be more at ease, which might propel him to win his fifth major and second U.S. Open title — though I don’t think the winning score will be anywhere close to 16-under like it was at Congressional in 2011. But, then again, who knows, crazier things have happened.