AFP/Southampton, United States
Rory McIlroy says the United States can thank the influence of Tiger Woods for the current dominance of American golfers – which he’ll be trying to disrupt at the US Open.
The four-time major-winner from Northern Ireland looked slightly taken aback yesterday when he was reminded that Americans have won the last four major championships, and currently hold the trophies from the professional and amateur team competitions the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Walker Cup and Curtis Cup.
“That’s a lot of pressure,” McIlroy said, drawing a laugh as he addressed the press at Shinnecock Hills on the eve of the 118th US Open.
“They’ve had a great run,” he said of the Americans, but added: “Look, these things go in cycles. European golf was very healthy a few years ago for a long time. It seemed every major someone from the island of Ireland turned up to we were winning it. It doesn’t seem that long ago.”
With the Ryder Cup looming in September at Le Golf National southwest of Paris, European and US golfers are already sizing each other up.
McIlroy said the current crop of US stars – including world number one Dustin Johnson, second-ranked Justin Thomas, reigning British Open champion Jordan Spieth, defending US Open champion Brooks Koepka and recently crowned Masters champ Patrick Reed – have been inspired by 14-time major champion Woods.
The 42-year-old superstar has now become a mentor to younger players. Even as he was sidelined by back trouble last year Woods served as an assistant captain on the US Presidents Cup team that demolished the International team in New Jersey.
Now that he’s back on tour, younger players are still benefiting from the guidance of a more mellow Woods, McIlroy said.
“I think that’s been a huge part of all this,” said McIlroy, who won the 2011 US Open at Congressional in record-setting style but has missed the cut three times since, including in each of the past two years.
“A lot of these guys have gotten to know Tiger. Being able to say, ‘OK, this is what he does, and we mightn’t be able to achieve everything that he has, but you can at least try to do that. I think that’s been a huge thing for Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups, and them as individuals as well.”
Nevertheless, McIlroy believes his game is in good enough shape to see him become the first non-American to win the US Open since Germany’s Martin Kaymer in 2014. England’s Justin rose won the year before that.
After a 2017 campaign hindered by injury, McIlroy boasts a US PGA Tour title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this year.
A disappointing final round saw him miss out again at the Masters, and his hot start at the European Tour’s PGA Championship at Wentworth came to nothing.
“I feel good about my game,” he said. “I just want to give myself another chance to win another major championship. It’s another opportunity to do something great this week.”
Woods, whose pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major victories has remained stalled at 14 since his 2008 US Open triumph, will put his fused spine and gradually improving game to the test at Shinnecock Hills in the 10th official start of his comeback season.
Five-time major winner Mickelson will try to become just the sixth Golfer to complete the career Grand Slam in a tournament in which he has settled for second a remarkable, heartbreaking, six times. Mickelson, who turns 48 on Saturday, would become the oldest US Open champion and the second-oldest major winner in history should he pull off the feat.
“We’re certainly on the back end of our careers,” 42-year-old Woods admitted. “We’ve been going at it for 20-plus years. That’s a long time.”
But Woods and Mickelson remain front and centre in the consciousness of Golf fans – with Woods’s return from the injury wilderness and Mickelson’s return to form electrifying galleries and fuelling television viewership this year.
Three-time major-winner Jordan Spieth believes a career Grand Slam for Mickelson would trump an end to Woods’s major drought.
“I think it makes a bigger difference for Phil than Tiger. I think there’s a different meaning to those two.”
But Australian Jason Day disagrees. “I think the biggest story would probably be Tiger,” Day said. “Not taking anything away from Phil because winning the career Grand Slam is absolutely huge. But for what happened to Tiger, it’s been 10 years, what he did in that period of when he dominated, and I think a lot of people are kind of chomping at the bit for him to come back and do something special – seeing if he can get back to winning and beating Jack’s record.”
Either outcome, however, would be a massive upset.
Johnson, the 2016 US Open champion, arrives at Shinnecock as the top-ranked player in the world courtesy of an emphatic PGA Tour triumph in Memphis last week. He’ll tee it up today and tomorrow alongside Woods and second-ranked Justin Thomas, whose five victories last season included a first major title at the PGA Championship.
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