U.S. Open course is a big test

Cham­bers Bay has a links feel to it, which could ben­e­fit McIl­roy and other Euro­peans.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Tod Leonard tod.leonard@ut­sandiego.com

UNIVER­SITY PLACE, Wash. — One month ago, Rory McIl­roy drove his ball so far and with such pre­ci­sion that he blew away the field by seven shots in the Wells Fargo Cham­pi­onship, scor­ing a 61 along the way. He looked as for­mi­da­ble as in any of his four ma­jor cham­pi­onship vic­to­ries.

“Ev­ery­thing is fir­ing on all cylin­ders for me,” the world’s top golfer said.

McIl­roy was then headed for his na­tive North­ern Ire­land to play the Ir­ish Open on one of the world’s best links cour­ses at Royal County Down. It fig­ured to only prime him for the un­usual Amer­i­can links test in the U.S. Open at Cham­bers Bay, which be­gins Thurs­day.

Add another ma­jor to the tro­phy case, right?

Some­where over the At­lantic Ocean, McIl­roy lost his mojo. Af­ter miss­ing the cut in the Euro­pean Tour’s BMW PGA Cham­pi­onship, the 26-year-old was em­bar­rassed by an open­ing-round 80 at County Down and caught on early f light to the United States to get him­self straight­ened out.

“I think,” McIl­roy said this week, “my mind had enough golf rather than my body.”

Both mind and body will need to be fully en­gaged this week if McIl­roy is to con­tend in the sea­son’s sec­ond ma­jor tour­na­ment af­ter fin­ish­ing fourth in the Mas­ters while try­ing to com­plete a ca­reer Grand Slam.

We know one thing: McIl­roy hails from the right part of the world.

In 2010 at Peb­ble Beach, North­ern Ir­ish­man Graeme McDow­ell’s tri­umph ended a 40-year dry spell for Euro­peans in the U.S. Open, and now those guys can hardly be stopped. McIl­roy won at Con­gres­sional in 2011, English­man Justin Rose at Me­rion in 2013 and Ger­man Martin Kaymer last year at Pine­hurst.

Now, the U.S. Golf Assn. is seem­ingly serv­ing tea and crum­pets — or is it beer and schnitzel? — on a sil­ver plat­ter at Cham­bers Bay, which looks as if it be­longs on the shore­line of Scot­land’s Firth of Forth.

“It plays more like a links course than some links cour­ses,” McIl­roy said of the 8-year-old Cham­bers Bay, fash­ioned from a for­mer gravel pit. “It’s so fast and firm. It re­minds me of 2013 at Muir­field at the Open. Was it ’06 at Hoy­lake when Tiger [Woods] won? It re­minds me of that. The course is get­ting burned out, it’s get­ting dry. It’s a pure links test this week.”

That’s the funny thing about Cham­bers Bay. It is such a con­found­ing puz­zle that the play­ers can’t seem to agree on much of any­thing about it.

Woods, a three-time Bri­tish Open cham­pion, said he first came to Cham­bers Bay ex­pect­ing a bump-and-run test. What he dis­cov­ered was that shots around the greens were just as ef­fec­tive through the air to take the un­pre­dictable mound­ing out of play. There are more back­boards to play off of here than in an ele­men­tary school yard. In that, it’s not very links-like.

“Un­like any links golf that we play, we don’t have el­e­va­tion changes like this,” Woods said. “That’s a vari­able that’s cer­tainly very dif­fer­ent.”

What is Bri­tish-like are the mi­nus­cule mar­gins be­tween a great shot and one that has a player cussing un­der his breath. We’re talk­ing a cou­ple of feet.

“You’re go­ing to see guys hit ter­ri­ble shots and end up in kick-in range from the hole,” Woods said. “You’re go­ing to see guys fire at the flag and get a good one and get a hard bounce and end up in a hard spot.”

Another de­bate has been about length. Jason Day in­sisted this week that a bomb-and-gouge player such as McIl­roy and Dustin John­son have a huge ad­van­tage. He said on some holes they could have a four-club dif­fer­ence into some greens be­cause they can fly fair­way bunkers 300 yards away.

Phil Mick­el­son said he thought the same thing, but changed his mind as the sun and ex­tremely dry North­west air sucked any mois­ture from the course.

“The course is play­ing so fast,” Mick­el­son said. “Holes I was hit­ting driv­ers on two weeks ago I was hit­ting three-woods and even twoirons. So I don’t see it be­ing as crit­i­cal.”

McIl­roy said he was happy to ditch the half­swing shots and bump wedges that were re­quired in his home­land.

“Any­one that can get el­e­va­tion on their iron shots and get a lit­tle spin on the ball — that’s the way you’re go­ing to get close to these pins,” he said. “All I tried to do last week was just get back to play­ing my nor­mal game.”

That would be some­thing novel at Cham­bers Bay.

Mike Ehrmann Getty Im­ages

JOR­DAN SPI­ETH walks up the 18th fair­way dur­ing a prac­tice round for the U.S. Open at Cham­bers Bay.

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