Rory McIlroy does some of his best work in the rain -- or at least, after drenchers have rendered formerly hard, quick golf courses moist and pliable. After all, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland whipped a sodden Congressional Country Club into championship shape during his record-shattering romp to the 2011 U.S. Open title.
So, while others in the field this week at muggy Merion for the 113th running of this country’s national tournament may wring their hands (and their waterlogged towels) at the prospect of slow greens and sticky fairways, McIlroy was figuratively rubbing his in gleeful anticipation of conditions that he figured suited him to a tee.
"There might be a few similarities to the way Congressional played to the way this week's going to play," McIlroy told reporters on Tuesday. "It was soft then and it's obviously going to be soft again this week."
For sure, Merion will offer a challenge, but it’s one McIlroy will enjoy far more than he did that of San Francisco’s Olympic Club, where he missed the cut in an unsuccessful defense of his first major title.
"I didn't really enjoy the Olympic Club last year," he said. "I much prefer this sort of golf. When you hit a shot and it doesn't bounce one way or the other, when you hit it and it stays where you think it's going to stay."
McIlroy’s plan of attack appeared to be more daring than others, as he expected to use his driver some seven times each round. He recognized, however, the need to play it smart on the course where hitting the narrow fairways and avoiding the toughest rough Ernie Els had ever seen will be a must.
“You can be aggressive on the holes that you feel comfortable on and sometimes you’ve got to be a little more conservative on the holes that the tee shot might not quite fit your eye,” said McIlroy, who noted he would use a lot of irons as well but not many 3- or 5-woods. “I’ll play quite aggressively off the tee.”
McIlroy, the world’s second-ranked golfer who’ll share the limelight with No. 1 Tiger Woods and reigning Masters champ Adam Scott (No. 3) in the first two rounds starting Thursday, could certainly use a decent outing in the midst of a winless season of change. After very publicly switching gear to start the season, the wunderkind that had his mates boosting him as the next Eldrick went into an immediate swoon.
His season got off to a bad start when he missed the cut in his first European Tour event in Abu Dhabi and went from bad to worse after he withdrew amid considerable controversy from the Honda Classic. McIlroy enters the week after a T57 finish at the Memorial Tournament 10 days ago.
Now in the midst of a management change, McIlroy has also had to tweak a swing that he used to dominate men’s golf last year, when he won dual money titles, was everyone’s player of the year, pocketed his second major at the PGA Championship, and settled in for what seemed would be a long stay atop the world golf rankings.
With all that behind him, McIlroy was looking ahead to the coming contest with optimism.
“My iron play's good. It’s dialed in,” said McIlroy, who’s ranked fourth in greens in regulation, but 106th in driving accuracy. “As long as I just put it on the fairway, I feel like I can take advantage of that.”
He has to hope he can, because he won’t get it done from the punishing, wet rough if he misses as spectacularly as he has at times this year.
"You've still got to hit it on the fairway, it's still a pretty tight golf course," he said. "When you do get it in the rough, you're not going to make birdies out of there, so you're going to have chances. But you're going to have some holes where it's going to be very difficult."
As for playing in the marquee, 1-2-3 grouping Thursday and Friday, McIlroy, who played a practice round Wednesday with his pal Tiger, said he welcomed the attention.
“It's a good thing,” McIlroy said. “I like it because you're in a group like that and there's a lot of buzz and a lot of atmosphere around it and it gets you focused from the first shot.”
And about that tiff with countryman Graeme McDowell over McIlroy’s plans to leave their mutual management firm, Horizon Sports, one would have to classify it as an undercard skirmish compared with the main event between Tiger and Sergio Garcia.
“It's [the relationship between the two] as good as it's always been, I guess,” McIlroy said. “I haven't really spent much time with him. We played together at Wentworth a couple of weeks ago and then I think he's taken a couple of weeks off. I went and played Memorial.
“So, but, yeah,” McIlroy said, “it's always as good as it's always been, yeah.”