One year on from announcing his arrival as a golfing superstar with a truly devastating display, World Number Two Rory McIlroy tees up at the Olympic Club this week bidding to become the first man for more than two decades to successfully defend the US Open Championship title.
At Congressional Country Club 12 months ago, McIlroy left a world-class field trailing in his wake to win by eight strokes from Jason Day and so record the largest margin of victory since Tiger Woods triumphed by 15 shots in the 2000 US Open Championship at Pebble Beach.
McIlroy will have a rejuvenated Woods to contend with in San Francisco, as well as the BMW PGA Champion Luke Donald of England – the one player above the Ulsterman in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Donald, McIlroy and World Number Three Lee Westwood, who warmed up with an impressive victory at last week’s Nordea Masters, will headline a 46-strong European Tour contingent hoping to keep the US Open Championship title in European hands, following Graeme McDowell’s success in 2010.
As part of his preparations to emulate the achievements of American Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back US Open Championships in 1988 and 1989, McIlroy recently played three practice rounds at the Olympic Club in the company of his long-term coach, Michael Bannon.
Having familiarised himself with its penal rough and lightning fast greens, McIlroy is expecting a fearsome test when the 7,170 yards, par 70 Lake Course plays host to the 112th edition of the US Open Championship from Thursday.
McIlroy said: “It was a very productive weekend. I did a lot of good work with my coach, and also got to see the course for next week. They made a few changes and it’s a really good set-up. So I got a lot out of it and I can’t wait to get going for real now.
“Last year at Congressional it was pretty wet and the course played fairly soft, but I’m expecting the Olympic this year to be a little similar to Pebble [Beach] in 2010. The course will be fast and firm, so it won’t necessarily be long hitters who will do well there – you just really need to control your ball.
“So if you can shoot four rounds of 70 you’ll have a great chance, because I shouldn’t think par will be too far away from winning. The US Open is probably the toughest test we face all year, which perhaps explains why there hasn’t been a repeat champion since Curtis [Strange]. But obviously I’m going to try my hardest to make that happen this year.
“Winning my first Major last year was a life-changing experience. You always dream and hope one day that you’ll be able to do it, and to make that dream become a reality is something that was very special, because it puts you among an elite group of players who can call themselves Major winners. So people always view you a little differently, and maybe you gain a little bit more respect from guys who have won Majors when you join the club.”
In light of his consistency over the past two seasons, Donald undoubtedly deserves to join that exclusive club, and the 34 year old believes his dominant display on the West Course at Wentworth Club last month was the perfect warm-up for his bid to secure the Major title which would complete a glittering CV.
The Englishman returned to the summit of the World Ranking after holding off his compatriot Justin Rose by four shots in The European Tour’s flagship event, and Donald is now determined to cement his status as the world’s pre-eminent golfer with victory in San Francisco.
Similarly, World Number Seven Rose, whose runner-up finish at the BMW PGA Championship propelled him to the top of The Race to Dubai, is also a strong contender to capture his maiden Major, having won the biggest prize of his career at the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March.
The only other European Tour Member in the top twelve of the World Ranking, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, already has one Major to his name, having captured the US PGA Championship in 2010.
Like McDowell at Pebble Beach, Kaymer proved he could cope with the intense pressure of leading a Major Championship on the final day, and the duo will be among the favourites to succeed McIlroy as champion.
But if the 23 year old from Holywood can rediscover the form which made headline news around the globe last year, he will be in pole position to copy Curtis. Stranger things have happened.