OAKMONT, Pa.—There aren’t many holes in Rory McIlroy’s golf resume.
There’s the Masters and, uh … well, I guess that’s about it.
He’s already got a U.S. Open, a British Open and two PGA Championships, needing only a green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam. But even McIlroy admits, he’s never won a tournament at a place like Oakmont, site of this week’s national championship.
“The majors that I have won have been soft and under par scores and they suit my style of game,” said McIlroy, who plays a power game with a high trajectory. “To win on a course like Oakmont with the conditions the way they are, it would maybe be my biggest accomplishment in the game. It would make me feel like a more complete player, I guess. I’d be very proud if I won on a course like this.”
The odd thing is, McIlroy fits the traditional profile of Oakmont champions from the latter half of the 20th century. They were mostly power hitters or precision iron players. Just run down the list—Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera.
The game has changed, however, even since Cabrera’s win. This week is the first time anyone has talked about Oakmont being on the short side. It has always been a beast. Sorry, The Beast. But even an aging Phil Mickelson isn’t intimated by Oakmont’s length anymore.
“The reason why I’m optimistic about Oakmont is that it doesn’t require me to hit a lot of drivers,” Mickelson said at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis last week.
That’s right, a course with a par three that may be stretch to 300 yards plays short.
So maybe the Oakmont profile no longer fits Rory’s shoulders like a snug sweater. Or maybe it will. It’s been nine years since the world’s best male players visited here. This is what we’re eager to find out.
Conditions have been firm and very fast in practice rounds and yes, many drivers sit forlornly in their bags. Rory figures he’ll pull the club out on the two par 5s (yes, there are only two, as two other par 5s are played as par 4s for the pros. The 7th hole could be a driver and so could the short 2nd if it’s downwind.
“But yeah, I don’t think there’s going to be many drivers,” he admitted. “I’ll hit 2-iron off the tee much more than I’ll hit driver.”
The driver issue is as much about avoiding the thick, deep rough and the deep fairway bunkers as it is about control, given the bouncy conditions early in the week. The rule at Oakmont is, hit the fairway or you’re done. Nobody is going to scramble out of this rough. The deep rough has been one of the surprise social media stars so far this week. Check out Canadian journalist Bob Weeks hiding ever-larger objects in the grass, from golf ball to tennis ball to billiard ball and, finally, to beer bottle.
“You’ve got to hit whatever club that you know is going to get on the fairway,” McIlroy said. “You just keep it out of the rough, keep it out of the bunkers. There are some holes where fairway bunkers aren’t too bad, but then there are others where you can’t really advance it too far.
“Every shot you hit, you’re under pressure to hit a great shot because you can’t really miss it. You have to get the ball in play. And if you get your ball on the fairway, you’ve just got to make sure that you leave yourself below the hole on the greens. And even in some cases, that may mean missing the green. It’s a great test of golf.
“You just have to be so disciplined. I’m an aggressive player, so there’s going to be times where I have to rein it back a little bit.”
Oakmont is a strange combination of two majors. It has the most ferocious rough of just about any Open championship on this side of the Atlantic Ocean with the most devastating green speeds and severe slopes of Augusta National. The result is rarely pretty, Johnny Miller’s 63 notwithstanding.
At the 1st and 10th holes, for instance, most Oakmont regulars would rather be just over the green and chipping back up the slope toward the pin than be putting down the slick slopes of the inverted saucer greens.
“I’d much rather have a 30-foot putt up the hill on these greens than even an 8-footer down the hill,” he said. When have you heard that outside of Augusta National?
Miller once explained the difference between the Masters and the U.S. Open like this: “The Masters is fun. The U.S. Open isn’t fun. It’s not supposed to be fun.”
McIlroy was asked to define his prevailing emotion going into this event, versus that of his feeling for the Masters.
“Trepidation, I guess,” he said. “Excitement is a good way to describe Augusta, but this week it’s definitely not excitement.”
He laughed along with a roomful of writers.
“You know you’re going to be put under a lot of pressure on basically every single golf shot you hit out there,” he added. “So you have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared for how mentally demanding it’s going to be, how much concentration you’re going to need. It’s going to be quite the mental grind. For the guys who are playing Congressional next week (in the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National event), they’re going to need a couple days off in between.”
Not everyone remembers that McIlroy was a brief last-minute contender last summer at Chambers Bay in the Open. He shot a front-nine 29 and charged onto the leaderboard but just couldn’t keep the birdies going. He finished off a 66 and tied for 9th, four shots behind Jordan Spieth. The perception of McIlroy’s year was that that he was a disappointment, thanks in part to that ankle injury he suffered in mid-summer while messing around with a soccer ball.
“That was really cool,” McIlroy said of his Chambers Bay finish. “I didn’t go out that day with the expectation of contending or being close to the lead. I wanted to go out and at least finish the tournament off on a good, positive note and play well and play a good round of golf. But all of a sudden, I find myself two back, standing on the 14th tee.
“So it was nice to feel that again, and it looked for a while that I had a chance. I had a good chance for birdie on 14 that I missed. And then I killed a little bit of momentum, and I bogeyed 15. But it was nice to at least give it a run. What really cost me that week was I lost my confidence on the greens. I lost confidence in the greens, which led to me losing confidence in my stroke. I was very tentative on the greens and didn’t hole anything. That won’t be the case this week.”
McIlroy recently abandoned his brief experiment with crosshanded putting and went back to his conventional grip and he feels good about his stroke. And Oakmont’s greens, he says, are perfect. They just aren’t flat.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel confident coming here. I feel like I’ve prepared well and that’s all you can really ask for.”
That, and filling that hole in his resume.