Is Rory now the favourite for the US Open?

Is Rory now the favourite for the US Open?

by Mark Townsend

Rory McIlroy is free-swinging and more patient. So is he the favourite for Pebble Beach, or are we just torturing ourselves yet again that he'll get No. 5?

Someone recently called it the ‘Fred Couples Syndrome’ – when a player is able to make the game look so easy that, when it doesn’t happen, it can make you look very ordinary. If ever any player fitted into this category it is Rory McIlroy.

At one moment, generally around the middle of April in Georgia, we’re all despairing of his patience levels and inability to hit his straps when it really matters, the next he’s flirting with a 59, winning by seven and heading to Pebble Beach as maybe the new favourite for the US Open.

Imagine anyone being more fancied than the major juggernaut Brooks Koepka? Only last month he was opening up 63-65 at Bethpage and we’re all talking about how he’s going to reach double figures within the next five years, the next Rory’s doing him by 20 shots and we’re all repeating the usual “If everyone brought their absolute ‘A’ game then Rory/Brooks/DJ blah blah blah…” We’ve heard it all before.

Koepka might have won four of his past eight majors but this is Rory and nobody, other than one other, gets us going quite like Rory.

The bookies have McIlroy and Koepka as joint-favourites this week with Johnson just behind. Any other year Johnson, having won the WGC in Mexico by five (over Rory), finished 2nd in the year’s first two majors and led by three the last time the US Open took place at Pebble Beach – he then shot a head-munching 82 to begin his major rollercoaster – might grab a few more headlines. He’s also won the AT&T twice.

Then again in the weekly merry-go-round of mentally jumping from one horse to the next what about Tiger? As far back as two months ago he was writing supposedly the greatest story ever, this is the scene of THAT win in 2000 (he also won the AT&T there earlier that year) and this is the ultimate second-shot course in the world.

There’s no need for endless drivers, Bethpage was no place for the modern-day Tiger Woods and the greens are tiny and poa which you’ll hear plenty about when he starts rolling them in.

What reason is there to not really, really fancy Woods? Given he’s won the Tour Championship, Masters and very nearly two other majors then pretty much none. You could dismiss plenty of players after they’ve enjoyed their big week, with Woods there’s never been any let-up in his pursuit of excellence.

And while we have Jordan Spieth back in the big time, Stevie Williams by Jason Day’s side, and a dozen others who have been touted as the best in the business at some point in the past couple of years, our minds soon revert back to McIlroy, the itch that we can’t stop scratching as he looks to move onto major No. 5.

As soon as he had put the Canadian Open to bed the 30-year-old had already turned his attentions to this week. He might not have had his best stuff at the majors so far this year but he’s still kept himself in check and treated the relative triumphs and disasters the same. Over the weekend at Bethpage he had a pair of 69s to back himself into the top 10.

Otherwise there has been the win at the Players, he’s rarely been out of the top 10 and there’s talk of meditation, juggling and some new reading, all of which has obviously put him in a good place mentally. Even after a rare missed cut, at Muirfield Village last week, he was able to take the positives and put in some extra time in on the range

It’s all about the long-term career and, while many have questioned his ability to be a Sunday closer, the one-time Boy Wonder now talks of stoicism, patience, perspective and not getting caught up in results.

After trouncing four of the world’s top six in Canada we can all do that.

It was just like the gold old days; two of his four major wins have ridiculously been by eight shots and Quail in 2015 was also by 2017. For the record 12 of Tiger’s 81 PGA Tour wins have been by seven or more strokes and Mickelson and Johnson, in their 64 combined wins, have done it once apiece.

Aside from the stunning consistency that McIlroy has now added to the locker the real kicker is that he played Canada with a genuine freedom and flow. There you are battling it out on the PGA Tour and, with five holes to go, your mind is set on trying to break 60.

“I think what I’m proudest of is still playing with that freedom going out being tied for the lead. Just putting my foot down and really making this tournament mine,” he said.

“By the time I got to the 14th tee I wasn’t really thinking of winning the tournament. I was thinking of trying to shoot 59. I had to reassess my goals a little bit in the middle of that back nine.

“This is what I feel I can do. I’ve been able to do it before. It was nice to get back to that feeling. I feel if I just get myself in the right place I’ll hopefully be able to do it more often and produce the sort of golf I produced over the weekend.”

As for this week the plan is to try and continue to play without any shackles, even though it’s a US Open at Pebble Beach.

“When you get to the US Open set-up it can make you play careful, a little tentative and try to guide it down the fairways. But if I’ve learned anything this week it’s my game is good enough and swing is good enough that I can play with freedom.

“I’m not going to go and hit driver on every hole but when I pull a club out of the bag I’ll make a really good, committed swing and know for the most part it should work out for me.”