With the courses looking as though they'll provide a stern test for field at this year's tournament, Rory McIlroy will hope he can prove he's up to the challenge
Those who know Rory McIlroy well say he’s never more dangerous than when he’s utterly annoyed — irritated by some perceived slight.
Tell him he’s a poor putter and he’s liable to go out and hole everything in sight. Doubt his ability to win a US Open on a hard and fast course with heavy rough and impossible greens and he’ll take real pleasure in proving you wrong.
It’s certainly one way of staying motivated in a sport where he has no made so much money that the record books are his biggest rivals.
Despite having already won a US Open — McIlroy recently said he was almost relieved that it’s not the title he needs to complete the career grand slam — the world No 3 is under as much pressure as the rest of the favourites to conquer Oakmont’s glassy greens, its ski run fairways, the lunar-like bunkers and superglue rough as any of the Big Three, or Big Four.
It’s not that he has to prove he can still win majors. But having won the 2011 US Open on 16 under, the US PGA (in 2012 and ’14) at 13 under and 16 under respectively and The Open (2014) with a 17 under par total, it’s surely only a matter of time before he has to grind out a major win with some more modest figures.
As McIlroy himself noted in his pre-tournament press conference, he’d love to win at Oakmont and tick another item to tick off the imaginary to-do list.
“I’d be very proud if I won on a golf course like this,” he said. “As you said, the majors that I have won have been soft and under par and more suits my style of game. But to be able to win on a course like this with the conditions the way they are, it would probably be my...I don't know if it would be my biggest accomplishment in the game. But definitely it would make me feel like a more complete player, I guess.”
McIlroy might not have done it for all four rounds, but he has won a major by a single shot and even dug deep to pull off his major wins.
His 75 in the wind-blown third day of the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island was arguably his most important major round.
“I think with experience, you learn what a good score is on that particular day,” he said. “Or, if you're not playing so well, how to just grind it out and make pars and try to get it in the clubhouse at a respectable score. And I feel like just over the years I've learned how to do that a little bit better.”
McIlroy learned that the hard way, losing the Open at St Andrews in 2010 because he shot 80 trying to shoot a 70 in a gale.
As the veteran US golf writer Dan Jenkins noted at the time, he didn’t know 75 was a good score.
It’s all about discipline and knowing when to attack and when to defend.
On the evidence of some of his course management decisions at this year’s Masters, it’s hard to have total faith in his ability to master the difficult conditions that could prevail this week.
His biggest ally may yet prove to be the weather. With rain forecast for Thursday and Friday, the course may be softened up enough to play into his hands.
Being regarded as the complete player is something that’s important to McIlroy and while it’s plainly untrue to say that he can’t cope with firm and fast conditions, a long, soft course would put a premium on his power and accuracy with the long clubs.
As always, his streaky putting stroke will come under scrutiny but as he’s coming in with confidence in his putter to greens that are as perfect as they are difficult, he may surprise a few. His lag putting has always been excellent.
His biggest rival looks like to be world number one Jason Day, who is not only the best putter on the PGA Tour this year, but also the most consistent US Open performer over the past few years.
With a cast of disparate characters waiting in the wings, this latest joust with Oakmont may prove to be the most entertaining event this season.
If McIlroy can keep his head when those around him are losing theirs, the US Open may become the Fifth Major, for Rory at least.