BETHESDA, Md. – Five things to take away from Tuesday at the U.S. Open. Players have just one more day to prepare for the year’s second major.
1.) Two of a kind: The biggest revelation to come out of Tuesday’s press conferences? The friendship between Rory McIlroy and LeBron James. The two share the same watch sponsor, Audemars Piguet, and exchange text messages.
McIlroy defended James, who was criticized for his fourth-quarter struggles during the playoffs. McIlroy knows about struggling with a championship on the line. He shot 80 in the final round of this year’s Masters.
“I think he’s been unfairly scrutinized,” McIlroy said. “Everyone is going to have bad days, if it’s on a golf course or on a basketball court. And with sports these days everything is over-analyzed, stats here, stats there, how has your team combined points in the last quarter of the Finals or whatever. It’s just one of those things.”
2.) End of an era: Tuesday’s presser was the last of Graeme McDowell’s duties as defending U.S. Open champion. The Northern Irishman was quite relieved.
“I’m really happy that it’s all done because I really want to look forward to the rest of my career and what I want to achieve,” McDowell said. “It’s tough to look forward when all everyone wants to talk about is the past.”
McDowell can look back fondly on the past year, but he’d probably prefer to forget his recent results. McDowell, who’d developed a reputation for performing well under pressure, had two surprising collapses in his past four starts. He shot a final-round 79 at The Players Championship after taking a one-shot lead through 54 holes. He was in contention at the Wales Open two weeks ago before shooting a third-round 81.
3.) Up to the test: Players are speaking positively about Congressional Country Club. That could change quickly, though.
McIlroy said the course was more “scoreable” than Pebble Beach or Bethpage Black. He envisioned an under-par winning score this week.
“I think you can see yourself shooting something in the 60s out here,” McIlroy said.
Players can be fairly aggressive at Congressional, thanks in part to Mike Davis’ graduated rough. Those who just miss the fairway can still reach the greens with mid- and short-irons. Dustin Johnson, one of the game’s longest hitters, said he hit a handful of drivers during his practice round. There could be one concern: the greens.
“The greens are certainly firming up from a week ago when I played,” Donald said. “They’re significantly firmer. They were even watering them today, so they’re even concerned right now that they’re getting too firm.”
4.) The Big Uneasy: Ernie Els wasn’t exactly playing his best golf before winning the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional. “I was a little bit on shaky ground,” said Els, who had just two top-10s in 11 starts before winning his second Open.
He’s in similar form as this year’s Open loom. Els has just three top-25s and zero top-10s in 11 PGA Tour starts this season; none of his top-25s have come in a full-field event, and one was a second-round loss at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.
Els said impatience has been one of his biggest problems. He’s 41, and running out of time to add to his legacy.
“I think my patience level – they say when you get older, it gets better, but I don’t know; I think I’m a little different,” he said. “That’s been part of my problem is trying to change things around and getting back to normalcy. It’s been a very weird, weird year this year so far.”
5.) Green with envy: Charl Schwartzel is the only man at Congressional with a chance to win the Grand Slam. “That’s a nice problem to have there,” he said. “I’’m going to give it my best go.”
Schwartzel is reminded daily of his breakthrough victory at Augusta National. Masters champions only get to keep the green jacket for a year before having to return it to the club. Schwartzel is taking advantage of his time with the famed coat, bringing it with him on the road. “You obviously don’t put it on every day, but you see it and sometimes you just stare at it for a while,” Schwartzel said.
Schwartzel is coming off a 22nd-place finish at the Memorial. He finished 16th at last year’s Open, his best finish in four starts.