Compared to Sergio Garcia’s 73-major wait for his maiden win, Rory McIlroy’s nine-major dry streak is but the blink of an eye.
Still, the world No 2 is now beginning to wonder what he needs to do to capture that fifth Grand Slam title and if he was looking for an end to the dark days, he only had to look up at the black Wisconsin sky.
“I wasn’t crying when I saw that rain last night and this morning,” he told a packed press conference at an Erin Hills course sodden by two heavy rain storms in the space of 10 hourse. “It’s a long golf course and it’s only going to play longer. That benefits a few guys, and luckily I’m one of them.”
Many analysts, including Paul McGinley, fear that after a month off and with only six tournaments under his belt this year, McIlroy is dangerously “undercooked” for the game’s toughest test.
But the 28-year-old insists he’s ready to sizzle, believing his driving prowess and a new putter will give him the weapons to bring that winless major streak to an end. Asked if he was “undercooked like a dangerous piece of pink chicken” or more like a juicy, rare streak, ready to be savoured, the world No 2 could only smile.
“Hopefully the latter,” McIlroy beamed. “I feel good. From what I see out on the golf course and how I am hitting the golf ball, I feel as confident as I have ever done going into a major apart from 2011.
“I don’t feel like my body is limiting me in any way so I can go out there and hopefully freewheel it. There might be a little less expectation on me this week too, so hopefully I can go out there and play freely, go at pins and attack.
“I think this golf course allows you to do that and that’s the way I like to play. Hopefully that works in my favour.”
Erin Hills measures 7,693 yards from the tips and with heavy raining dousing its 600 acres on Monday evening and another thunderstorm yesterday morning forcing officials to suspend practice, it plays into McIlroy’s hands in many respects.
The deep fescue rough is so thick the owner of Erin Hills get the local Amish community to harvest 165 acres of grass every year as feed for their cattle. Last year, the Amish took away 62 tonnes in more than 3,480 bales. But there was a little less grass last night as the USGA, fearing crosswinds could cause havoc, sent out teams to cut back the heaviest patches in the landing areas at the fourth, 12th, 14th and 18th.
McIlroy was appalled to hear that news, taking an indirect swipe at players like Kevin Na, who have been complaining the thickest deep fescue is just yards from the edge of the semi-rough and a by-product of irrigation overspray.
“Really?” McIlroy said on hearing the strimmers have been in action. “We have 60 yards from left line to right line. You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here. If we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home.
“These are the widest fairways we’ve ever played in a US Open. Even the first and second cut is another 10 yards on top of that. So if you’ve got 50 or 60 yards to hit into and you’re complaining about the fescue that’s wider than that, I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Jordan Spieth had a different view. “Cutting the rough back doesn’t necessarily make it easier, and what I mean by that is you then are presented with a shot where it’s almost a tease,” he said.
It’s not Erin Hills’ deep rough that makes this US Open a good opportunity for McIroy but its softness and length. He’s a specialist in winning majors on rain- softened venues, famously romping to an eight-strike maiden major win with a record low score in the US Open at Congressional six years ago. He also won by eight strokes at a soft Kiawah Island in the 2012 US PGA before grinding out major No 4 at a soggy Valhalla to lift the Wanamaker Trophy for the second time in 2014, three weeks after capturing the Claret Jug.
Since then he’s winless in his last nine majors but insists it’s not a streak that’s causing him sleepless nights just yet, pointing out Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus both went 10 majors or more without adding to their tallies.
“I don’t think I need to force it at all,” he said. “If I stay patient and stick to the process and the gameplan, preparing the way I should and doing the right things, it will come.
“There were times in Jack and Tiger’s careers where they went three years without winning a major. There isn’t any panic setting in yet but it would be nice to get my name on another major pretty soon.”
McIlroy’s major wins have one crucial element in common — he got off to fast starts in all four and led from the front.
Since he won at Valhalla, he’s managed to break 70 just once and there are question marks over this week given his four-week layoff and the news that he’s added TaylorMade’s Spider Tour Red putter to his bag.
“It’s imperative for me to get off to a good start, I feel like, and I haven’t been able to do that,” he confessed.
“I don’t know if that’s putting a little too much pressure on myself.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think over the last few weeks and sort of figure out what I need to do to get back to winning majors.
“There was a period there, in sort of ‘10 and ‘11, and obviously ‘14, as well, but ‘10 and ‘11 where I would start majors very well, and it’s just a matter of figuring out why that was.”
He’s concluded that better preparation is the answer and while the addition of a new putter has raised some eyebrows, he said he made the decision after heading to putting coach Phil Kenyon’s Southport studio after the Masters, concluding he could bring it back to square more often than anything else he had tested.
“Driver and putter are going to be the two big weapons this week,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a secret that I feel like my driver is one of my biggest weapons in my bag. If I can get that in my hands more regularly, and I think if the field has to hit driver more, as well, that plays into my hands, too.”
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