Pinehurst, N.C. – Bubba Watson has won two of the past three Masters, and grew up on a sandy course in the south. Instead of embracing Pinehurst No. 2 as a welcome challenge, Watson said:
“A U.S. Open brings out challenges that we’re not used to, challenges that we can only take once a year. We would all find other jobs if we had to do it every week.”
Jack Nicklaus once said that he disregarded as challengers any players who complained about a course before a major. Watson sounds as if he is talking himself out of contention.
Then there is Rory McIlroy, who on the eve of the U.S. Open managed to sound confident, optimistic, prepared and reverential all at once.
Here’s how McIlroy prepared for the U.S. Open: He practiced at Pinehurst No. 2, which he had never seen before in person, last week: He played the course on Monday and Tuesday, then flew to Palm Beach to meet with Nicklaus. Then he flew home to Ireland to rest before returning to Pinehurst on Tuesday.
McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open. Nicklaus won a record-tying four U.S. Opens. McIlroy said Nicklaus gave him advice, and then asked, “How the hell can you shoot a 63 and then a 78?”
Good question. That’s what McIlroy did at Nicklaus’ tournament, The Memorial.
McIlroy won last month at the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship, but has made a habit of following sterling first rounds with awful second rounds.
“I feel very honored that I’m able to call him up for advice, if I need to,” McIlroy said. “He’s been very generous with his time … Some of the things he said to me, I’m really thinking about, going into this week.”
McIlroy, once ranked No. 1 in the world, is now ranked sixth. He set a record with a 16-under-par victory at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open, and with an eight-shot victory at the 2012 PGA Championship.
Those dominant performances have not led to dominance of the tour.
“After the season I had in the majors last year, I was coming in this year and making them a real priority,” he said. “I want to get into contention. I want to feel the buzz of being there on the last day of majors and having a chance to win, and being more consistent.”
Pinehurst No. 2 offers a unique challenge. The rough has been removed, revealing sand and wiregrass. Long hitters like McIlroy may feel emboldened to hit their drivers, knowing that punishment is not an automatic, that they will often be able to advance their second shots near the green.
High-ball hitters like McIlroy may benefit, too, because they will have a better chance of stopping the ball on Pinehurst’s turtle-backed greens.
McIlroy said in January that he wanted to win two majors this season. He has three remaining.
“I think it’s definitely a reasonable goal,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that often. But I feel like my game is in a good enough place where I can definitely give myself a chance to do that.’’