Strange place, this Oakmont Country Club. Perhaps the only place in our golf world where it is the goal of membership to inflict pain.
“We like to punish our guests,” a longtime member, Gene Farrell, said on the eve of the 116th US Open. Crazy thing is, there probably isn’t a member at this iconic club who doesn’t subscribe to that thinking. Again, strange, wouldn’t you say?
Contrary to all these initiatives supported by the US Golf Association and the R&A — you know, the “grow the game” mantra — Oakmont members consider it their responsibility to the sport to slow the game. They do that by making sure their guests’ days are filled with double-bogeys or triples, that a miserable score is the end result, and that you can’t possibly finish this 18-hole root canal in less than five hours. Suffice to say, if everyone who wants to love golf had to play a round at Oakmont, equipment manufacturers would sell a few dozen sets of clubs a year.
Strange, indeed, but here’s the strangest of all: Who who have ever imagined Rory McIlroy would be in position to commiserate with a 12-handicapper and feel the wrath of Oakmont? The same Rory McIlroy who is one of 28 men to win four or more major championships?
The same Rory McIlroy who steamrolled to victory in this US Open business five years ago? The same Rory McIlroy who came into Oakmont ranked third in the world and seemingly determined to prove he deserves to be where he’s been for 94 weeks in his still-young career — No. 1.
Indeed, that is the Rory McIlroy we expected to see at Oakmont, especially given the pedigree of winner we get when the US Open sets up here: Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Ernie Els — Hall of Famers, each and every one. McIlroy is of that ilk, so how it went so horribly bad is perhaps the biggest surprise not of the week, but of the season.
McIlroy wasn’t in a talking mood when he left Oakmont Saturday. Heck, he wasn’t in aoff walking mood, either, because he ran as fast as he could to put this place behind him.
While it’s true McIlroy’s star has lost a bit of its shine in the last year or two, thanks to the success of Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, to these eyes he is still the most talented player in the game. Seeing him win at Royal Troon in July would not surprise me.
What ranked as a surprise — excuse me, upgrade that to shock — was seeing McIlroy return to the practice range late Friday with his swing coach, Michael Bannon.
Now, it was the most disjointed of championships, due to Mother Nature’s fury, no question. Off early Thursday, McIlroy and 68 other competitors were chased incessantly by a series of thunderstorms and didn’t finish their first rounds until Friday morning.
Knowing he would not play Round 2 until Saturday, the Irishman used Friday afternoon to hit balls, only seeing Bannon take video of McIlroy’s swing was a bit disconcerting. McIlroy, technical? Always, McIlroy appeared to be someone who only got “fine-tuning” at different times during the year, that he was a kid with enormous confidence in his swing.
But as Bannon video-taped and McIlroy hit a series of indifferent iron shots, then hung his head time and time again, the thought occurred he was struggling. McIlroy tweeted as much y yesterday, conceding he was “fighting his swing.” Likely Geoff Ogilvy would be perplexed by such an admission. The Aussie said once McIlroy and Angel Cabrera had the “two freest swings in the game”, as high a compliment as one can pay. A free swing is one that stands up to pressure, that repeats, and yet here was McIlroy in a major championship freezing.
For a brief time in Saturday’s second round, McIlroy seemed free with the swing. Four birdies in seven holes had him at three over — closer to contention than the cut. But the fight with his swing returned and he played his last seven holes in five over to miss his first cut in a major since the 2013 Open at Muirfield. He was the world No. 2 at the time, so the shock value was up there, too, just like Oakmont. That he responded by winning a pair of majors the very next year speaks volumes for what sits at the heart of this special talent. OK, so Oakmont punished him. He’s not alone. But it says here he’ll soon be in less crowded confines, back in the winner’s circle of a major.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved