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U.S. Open course might suit Rory McIlroy just fine

U.S. Open players fear how fast the dry and unpredictable Chambers Bay course plays

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 that 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 flight 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 the 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 in 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 earlier in the 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 positioned at 300 yards.

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 two-irons. So I don't see it being as critical."

McIlroy said he was happy to ditch the half-swing 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."

Normal. That would be something novel at Chambers Bay.

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