Looking back now, the move of the Match Play Championship from February to the end of April created a seismic shift in the landscape of this golf season. Traditionally the interval between the Masters and the U.S. Open had been among the most stultifying on the calendar, but the Match Play’s shift led to a blockbuster three-week stretch that has brought a needed clarity to the run-up to the Open. The Harding Park-Sawgrass-Quail Hollow trifecta offered wildly different championship tracks but one inescapable conclusion: Rory McIlroy is the U.S. Open favorite. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
McIlroy’s seven-stroke blowout at Quail Hollow capped a three-week rampage that was impressive even by his sky-high standards. At the Match Play he won without his best stuff, relying on guts and guile. At the Players, McIlroy struck the ball beautifully but his putter had hypothermia. Still, only seven players bettered his score. At the Wells Fargo Championship he put it all together, particularly during the third round when he broke his own course record with an 11-under 61 that featured some of the most precise and overpowering ballstriking in PGA Tour history. Nine of McIlroy’s 11 birdies came on putts of less than 10 feet, and the longest birdie putt he holed all day was a mere 14-footer. His playing partner, Will MacKenzie, was suitably impressed: “It was phenomenal,” said MacKenzie, a two-time Tour winner. “He overpowers the course. Guys like Jordan Spieth and Rickie [Fowler] are totally awesome, but when this guy hits it, you know who’s hitting it.”
MacKenzie’s name-dropping offers a clue to McIlroy’s motivation. At Harding, the world number one had to put up with innumerable questions about Spieth, who was coming off his historic Masters win. At Quail Hollow, Rory was probed about Fowler’s potentially game-changing breakthrough at the Players. McIlroy had just a little steel in his voice when he said he was No.1 in the World Ranking for a reason, and his score of 21 under was, of course, the ultimate rebuttal.
So now we look ahead, to what could be a blockbuster summer. McIlroy owns a piece of the course record at the Old Course, site of the British Open, while the last time the PGA Championship was held at Whistling Straits, in 2010, he finished a shot out of the playoff. Chambers Bay, site of the U.S. Open, is a wild card, with few pros having ever laid eyes on this wondrous manmade links on the outskirts of Tacoma, Wash. It will feature some of the wildest greens in U.S. Open history, which would seem to favor a Spieth over a McIlroy. But Chambers is also a big, brawny ballpark, which can play in excess of 7,500 yards in the cold, thick Northwestern air. It features some 1,000 feet of elevation change. There is hardly a straight hole on the course, meaning on every tee box a player will have to decide how aggressive he wants to be.
On Tour the caddies have something called the Rory Line -- it is the boldest possible path to cut a dogleg or otherwise take on trouble. If McIlroy drives the ball at Chambers Bay like he did at Quail Hollow, he can take the longest course in U.S. Open history and effectively make it play short, giving him a massive advantage over every other player in the field.
It would be wonderful for the championship, and golf in general, to have Spieth or Fowler or both in contention. But MacKenzie had it right: There is McIlroy, and there is everybody else. In the wake of his dominant play over the last three weeks, that’s never been more obvious. The U.S. Open may very well be the event at which the gap grows even wider.
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