Given the horror stories circling social media, videos of grass gobbling golf balls and greens running like Usain Bolt on a travelator, you could be excused for thinking this year’s US Open was being played at Pirate’s Cove.
But for four-time Major winner Rory McIlroy, who’s been critical of extreme USGA set-ups in the past, this week’s assignment at Winged Foot is a fair one, at least after his first 18-holes in preparation for Thursday’s start in New York.
“It’s awesome. I’ve never been here before. This is the first time I’ve had a look at it. Played 18 holes yesterday and loved what I saw,” McIlroy said.
“It’s hard, obviously, but I think it’s very, very fair. I said to someone yesterday when I played Oakmont for the first time, my initial reaction was, this place is impossible, — this course doesn’t feel quite as — it gives you a little more chances if you miss it, I guess. You can run the ball up on to the greens and it’s maybe a touch more playable, but it’s a tough track, and I’m still learning it as I go here.”
McIlroy enters this week’s event about as under the radar as it gets for the Holywood star. The golf that lit up our screens last season has been missing since the lockdown and off-course distractions – albeit most welcomed with the birth of his first daughter, Poppy – haven’t helped his playing ambitions.
However, this week represents an opportunity for McIlroy to end a six-year Major drought and with new perspective that only parenthood could bring, coupled with an ease of expectation around the usual pre-tournament favourite, everything points to a big week for McIlroy on a course he likes the look of… barring any last minute trickery by those setting up the test.
“I’ve only played 18 holes here, but there would have to be — something would have to go seriously wrong to get into the realms of goofy golf,” McIlroy added.
“I think good shots here seem to get rewarded. It’s not — again, going back to Oakmont, Oakmont is a wonderful golf course, but I think Oakmont setup normally is right about on the edge, and if you just go a little further, then that can start to get a little goofy, where here it doesn’t seem like that can happen.
“Certainly if you get it way too firm and you get some crosswinds and stuff, it can get pretty dicey, but from what I’ve seen yesterday and today, I expect that not to happen.”
Instead, McIlroy hopes that the course that greeted him for his opening practice round and left an encouraging first impression will be the one he meets come tee-time on Thursday. Despite the hype surrounding the length of holes and length of rough, the test he’s encountered so far is tough, yes, but it’s manageable should he find enough fairways this week to compete.
“I think when you read articles about golf courses – sometimes they get so hyped up and so made into these — this is a wonderful golf course, and I think one of the best that I’ve played for a U.S. Open, but you still get here and — I thought I was going to have to hit driver, 5-iron into every par-4, and it’s not quite like that.
“There’s still places where precision beats power, and that’s been the case here at U.S. Opens in the past. But not as many drivers off tees as I thought there would be, which is good.
“You’ve got to put your ball into position, and then once you do that, that’s a tough part, and then getting it on to the right levels of these greens, leaving it below the hole, giving yourself decent putts.
“I think this place tests every single aspect of your game, so I don’t think I could single out the toughest thing that you need to do or the hardest thing you’re going to have to do this week. It’s all pretty tough.”
McIlroy plays the opening two rounds in the company of Aussie Adam Scott and fellow former U.S. Open winner, Justin Rose.
The trio get underway at 1.07pm Irish time (Thursday) from Winged Foot’s 10th tee at the same time Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa hit from the first.