PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Let’s be honest: The real attraction this week at the U.S. Open is these beautiful seaside links on the Monterey Peninsula.
So when Rory McIlroy stepped foot onto Pebble Beach for the first time Monday morning, his jaw nearly hit the Poa annua.
The signature par-3 seventh – “it’s just a little chip.” The ocean-hugging trio of holes 8-10 – “spectacular.” And the uphill, 580-yard par-5 14th – “the most difficult par 5 I’ve ever played.”
McIlroy paused, but the smile never left his face.
“I’ve played Pebble Beach a lot on video games,” he said. “But it’s a lot easier on PlayStation.”
It’s tough to blame McIlroy for being a little giddy this week. He’s in the midst of a breakout season. In his Quail Hollow debut in early May, he shot 62 to win his first PGA Tour event. He turned 21 a week later at The Players Championship, and posted a top 10 at the Memorial two weeks ago. He’s been hamming it up this week during practice rounds with fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell and checking World Cup scores on his phone.
U.S. Open pressure? Please.
“I mean, maybe in a couple of years I’ll hopefully be a bit more advanced in my career to say, yeah, I think it’s time that I’m ready to win a major,” McIlroy said. “But there’s no rush right now.”
Did you catch that last part? No rush. That’s about as refreshing as the breeze off Carmel Bay.
Here’s an uber-talented young man who has heard his named buoyed about as Europe’s Next Best Thing since he was a teenager, and he’s content knowing that neither he, nor major championships are going anywhere.
That’s not to say, however, that McIlroy isn’t going to put the pedal to the metal this week. He’s one of the best ball strikers in the field, able to shape shots both ways and adapt his trajectory to changing conditions. In the calm practice-round wind, McIlroy was able to hoist a high 4-iron into the par-3 12th and make the ball stop. If it gets windy, he’s confident he can find the tight aprons around the front of the tiny greens to play a run-up shot.
“If you put your ball in the middle of the green every time, you’re going to have a chance for birdie,” McIlroy said.
Birdies weren’t an issue for McIlroy last year at Bethpage, where he made his first U.S. Open appearance. He shot 68 in the final round and tied for 10th, then two months later tied for third at the PGA Championship. On the European Tour this season, he’s finished third in Abu Dhabi and tied for sixth in Dubai.
Others have been taking note.
“He for sure can contend this week,” said Ian Poulter, who played a practice round Wednesday with McIlroy. “He’s got a great ball flight. He hits it very high. He hits it long . . . and that I think suits this golf course on a number of tee shots. He’s been working hard on his putting, and when he putts very well, he runs close. So he’s just very, very good, very, very young. And it’s not often you see that.”
McIlroy’s draw in Rounds 1 and 2 alongside Ryo Ishikawa, 18, and Tom Watson, 60, is a bonus. He says Ishikawa, who shot 58 to win a Japan Tour event the same day McIlroy won at Quail Hollow, is the one player he likes to watch on TV above all others. They’ve become fast friends over the last couple of years.
Watson and McIlroy played a practice round together in April at the Masters. McIlroy was stunned at how crisply Watson struck the ball and said he plans to “pick up a few things” from Pebble’s 1982 U.S. Open champ on Thursday and Friday.
“It should help me relax a little bit,” McIlroy said.
So should his plans for Thursday night. Game 7 of the NBA Finals will be starting just as McIlroy will be finishing up his round. The plan: Some friends, some family and some basketball, with fingers crossed for a Lakers victory.
“You wouldn’t want to be thinking about golf 24/7, especially not a U.S. Open week,” McIlroy said. “I think you would go crazy.”