Rory McIlroy looked as happy as a sand boy and no wonder. Of all the surprises the United States Golf Association have thrown at the game in recent years, the sight of generous fairways for this year’s edition of the US Open at Shinnecock Hills might well be the most unexpected.
While the short and medium hitters are grumbling in the locker room already, asking not unreasonably, ‘What’s happened to the rough, tough bad old US Open?’, McIlroy stressed it’s born of necessity. ‘Imagine if you had this wind, narrow fairways, and ferocious rough?’ he told Sportsmail, during nine holes of practice on Monday.
Actually, we don’t need to imagine. It happened the last time the US Open was in these parts, and the infamous farce of 2004.
Rory McIlroy was all smiles during his practice round at Shinnecock Hills on Monday
He added: ‘They look generous, and they will be if there’s no wind, but go and drop a ball in the rough and see what happens. If you miss them, you’ve got no chance.’
McIlroy has been here a week already and is having a ball. He’s played three other great courses in this privileged part of Long Island — the National, Sebonack and Friar’s Head — as well as a couple of twirls around Shinnecock.
‘What a fantastic part of the world, and particularly at this time of year,’ he enthused.
McIlroy and Spaniard Jon Rahm sign autographs for fans at Shinnecock Hills
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‘What a cool way to end the day and hole that shot on 18. A lot of good things happened this week. I knew coming in I was swinging really well and had a lot of confidence in my game. Now, it’s about doing it again at the US Open.’
What a cool way to regain the world No 1 spot too, as Dustin Johnson closed out victory by six shots at the St Jude Classic on Sunday by holing his second shot from the fairway at the 18th. In so doing he displaced Justin Thomas at the summit. No player has ever claimed the US Open having won the week before but, given the fairly lenient Shinnecock Hills set-up, Johnson clearly has the opportunity to create history.
For Monday’s round, McIlroy had Spaniard Jon Rahm for company. In between shots he consulted with former American Ryder Cup player Brad Faxon, who’s been advising him on his putting and in the process has become something of a mentor. He also picked the brains of three-time major champion Nick Price, who’s now a voice of sanity on the USGA’s executive committee.
Like every other player, McIlroy spent an inordinate amount of time practising on the severely undulating greens. In the process, it was easy to see how the USGA got them so fast last time they became unfair. This was only Monday but from a position above the 18th green, McIlroy still knocked his first putt from 20 feet almost as far past the hole.
‘Nick was saying they will only get about a foot faster than this,’ he explained, referring to the added distance the ball would travel if the green had been cut to tournament speed.
From the clubhouse nearby that sits majestically on a hill overlooking the course, it was a real thrill to look out on a venue with the feel of a traditional links on the other side of the Atlantic.
This US Open might just prove a classic.
War on dawdlers gathers pace
Thanks to everyone who emailed regarding last week’s column on slow play. There’s no question this is the most pressing issue to vex the mind of the average golfer, the single most off-putting thing about the modern game.
So, have we seen a real breakthrough at last? What happened over four days at the Shot Clock Masters in Austria was positively eye-opening.
A low-key European Tour event that normally receives next to no coverage deservedly drew widespread praise all around the world, with No 1 Dustin Johnson leading the resounding applause.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson backed the European Tour initiative against slow play
Just look at the startling figures. Thanks to the players being timed on every shot, rounds were reduced by more than 30 minutes over the previous year. In round four, the field was taking less than three and- a-half hours to play 18 holes.
The golf was better too, because the pros didn’t have time to dawdle and second-guess themselves. The scoring average of 72.24 was more than a full shot better than previous editions at the venue in question, Diamond Country Club. The next test, of course, is to make it work at an event where all the top players, who are used to getting their own way, are competing.
But you sense the European Tour’s CEO Keith Pelley has got the bit between his teeth on this one. If the Canadian’s most lasting contribution proves a tour where everyone plays at a pace more respectful of their fellow competitors and the watching public, what a legacy it would be.