McIlroy expects 'tricky test' in June's US Open
By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Even though he has yet to play at The Olympic Club, Rory McIlroy already knows what to expect this June.
All he has to do is look at his scorecard from last year.
After a record-setting performance at rain-softened Congressional, the defending champion is counting on the U.S. Open to truly return to "golf's toughest test" on the San Francisco shoreline. Just listening to USGA executive director Mike Davis explain the Lake Course's layout Monday from three time zones away made McIlroy chuckle.
"I feel like I just played a practice round listening to Mike," McIlroy said on a conference call from Charlotte, N.C., where he is playing in the Wells Fargo Championship this week. "I'm expecting this to be a tough and tricky test."
So is everybody else.
McIlroy finished at 16-under 268 last year in Bethesda, Md., where rains dampened the course and created conditions that befuddled USGA officials. Twenty players turned in scores under par; seven total finished under par in the previous six national championships.
A repeat of those low numbers is unlikely.
At least that's the USGA's goal.
When players tee off June 14 in the serene setting across the street from the Pacific Ocean, weather should be dry in Northern California and the narrow fairways should be fast and fickle. That could turn an already demanding course known for its unleveled lies and tiny greens into a stress machine.
"We are incredibly bullish on how good a test this is going to be," Davis said. "This is going to be a great shot-making course."
The par-70, 7,170-yard course is 373 yards longer than the last time it hosted the national championship in 1998 - including the 670-yard 16th hole that will be the longest par 5 in the event's 112-year history.
Windy conditions and the threat of the city's famous fog - especially unpredictable along the coast - also could make the thick, tree-lined course even trickier. Davis, who is adamant that the first six holes will "absolutely be the toughest start to a U.S. Open," still wants to reward well-executed shots while penalizing poor ones.
"It will be a firm and fast golf course. Length will not be as much of an issue this year," Davis said.
The only repeating Davis couldn't care about is the champion.
That seems something he shouldn't worry about.
Not since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 has there been a back-to-back U.S. Open winner. And Olympic, historically more famous for the legends who lost than those who won, figures to give McIlroy its latest run.
A graveyard for champions, Olympic has hosted the national championship four times previously. It's where Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson and Lee Janzen were crowned; the runner-ups those years were Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart.
The world's new No. 1 promised that there was far more pressure to perform a year ago than anything he will face entering this season's second major.
McIlroy's Master's meltdown in 2011 - when he entered the final round ahead by four strokes and finished 10 strokes behind winner Charl Schwartzel after carding an 80 - had everybody wondering how Boy Wonder would respond. After winning the U.S. Open in record fashion for his first major, life is far less stressful now for the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland.
"It makes people view you a little differently," he said. "Maybe gives you a little more respect, you're sort of part of the club."
Becoming a member of Olympic's exclusive major championship club won't be easy.
More than half of the holes have dog legs, including four where the fairways - many some of the most narrow anywhere - will go in opposite directions. Eight of the 14 holes with approach shots have unleveled lies.
The elevation, while not changing as some might expect with San Francisco's unending hills in the backdrop, could still prove particularly perplexing. The front nine will play at a par 34 and the back nine a par 36, and controlling speeds and position will be paramount.
"There's not a player in the field who can't curve it both ways," Davis said. "The trick is, can they do it when it counts?"
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Updated April 30, 2012