Rory McIlroy ready for dangers at Chambers Bay

Rory McIlroy will begin his bid for a second US Open title this afternoon determined to separate the men from the boys on a course at Chambers Bay he believes will severely punish poor play.

The tidal, saltwater shores of Puget Sound in America’s Pacific Northwest are home to what many, including McIlroy, believes is a pure links challenge on a par with an Open Championship rather than anything the US Open has offered previously.

That has generated plenty of controversy from golfers and pundits alike who prefer the annual grind provided by the USGA to be manicured, green and altogether more straightforward than this decidedly browned, firm and fast layout with seemingly infinite variations in set-up at the disposal of the championship organisers.

Yet Ireland’s world No. 1, the reigning Open champion following his tour de force by the Irish Sea at Hoylake last year, believes he can thrive in the benign, dry conditions forecast for this venue just south of Seattle while others may buckle. Disagreeing with the premise put to him that Chambers Bay will be a great leveller, McIlroy said: “No, I think a place like this can separate the field a lot. This is the sort of golf course that if you’re just slightly off, it’ll magnify that. But it’ll really reward people that are hitting good shots and are confident and their short games are sharp.

“I definitely think this is the sort of golf course that you could see the guys that are really playing well and are confident with the set-up and how they approach it, they could really separate themselves from the rest of the field.”

Of all the comparisons with Open venues and conditions, the one that crops up most is Muirfield in 2013 when Phil Mickelson won in the sun and McIlroy missed the cut at the nadir of his annus horribilis. That may have jarred with the Co. Down man but he said: “I do like it this firm and fast. I feel with some of the elevated approach shots you play around here, you need to be able to hit the ball up in the air with quite a lot of spin, which fortunately I’m able to do.

“Even though the conditions are going to be similar to Muirfield, you’re not going to have to play the same style of golf. There’s a lot of greens here that it’s not like you can run the ball in. You might have to go to one side of the green or the other to sort of bank them in.

“There are a lot of greens that are like bowls. But you’re still going to have to play shots up in the air and try and get a little bit of spin on them to control it somewhat on these greens.”

McIlroy will need the wind not to blow if his gameplan is to succeed but his confidence is high in a 2015 campaign that has already seen him win three titles, despite consecutive missed cuts in his last two starts.

“My game feels in really good shape and I’m hitting the ball well and I’m confident, so I think it really is just about getting the right game plan and if you’re sharp with the driver and sharp with the putter from basically 30 yards and in, that’s going to be a big key this week.”

Chambers Bay has been repeatedly described as a bomber’s paradise, further boosting McIlroy’s morale as well as that of the likes of Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson. Drives have been rolling an extra 90 yards on the hard, baked fairways and Mickelson, who needs little reminding that he can complete a career Grand Slam this week if he can finally get over the line at the US Open following six runner-up finishes, has a contrary view of the importance of driver this week.

“Two weeks ago I thought so, but after playing it today I don’t think that it matters,” Mickelson said on Tuesday. “I think the course is playing so fast and so firm that there are three drives that I can think of that distance is going to be a factor. But the course is playing so fast. Holes I was hitting drivers two weeks ago, I was hitting three woods and even two irons. So I don’t see it being as critical.”

That will be music to the ears of shorter hitters like Graeme McDowell, who may well still struggle to carry some of the menacing cross bunkers here but have the craft and patience to grind it out nonetheless.

McDowell sees the potential for any eventuality given the scope the USGA’s executive director Mike Davis has for varying the set-up. And he will not be the only competitor here to feel slightly perplexed by some of the challenges posed by Davis and course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr, not least the 1st and 18th which will alternate between par-fours and par-fives each day while the course remains a par 70.

“There’s a few holes which have me kind of thinking, wow, this could be really carnage, you know, if you play it incorrectly.”

Yet, as McDowell said himself, it is also a course with plenty of opportunities and for all the bluster the decision to come to Chambers Bay has generated, the USGA will still crown its successor to 2014 champion Martin Kaymer on Sunday evening. And just like every US Open before it, the winner will have earned that crown the hard way.

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