OAKMONT, Pa. — Trepidation. It’s the feeling of fear that causes one to hesitate, thinking something bad or unpleasant is going to happen.
It’s also the one-word answer used by Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion and third-ranked golfer in the world, to describe the prevailing emotion for players heading into the 2016 U.S Open at Oakmont Country Club.
“This week it’s definitely — it’s not excitement,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “I mean, it’s definitely not that.”
No, Oakmont elicits reactions on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.
“It’s going to be quite the mental grind,” McIlroy said after his second practice round of the week. “You expect that coming into a U.S. Open. It’s the toughest test in golf, and you know that, and you have to do everything you can to prepare for that and try to do your best.”
Ashland's Jason Allred, playing in his fourth U.S. Open, tees off on Hole No. 1 at 4:18 PDT today with Justin Hicks and Soren Hansen. Allred, a Scottsdale, Ariz., resident, made it through sectional qualifying last week.
The list of past winners at Oakmont reads like a who’s who of some of the game’s best players of the last century. Jack Nicklaus. Ben Hogan. Johnny Miller. Ernie Els.
The course’s history and playing conditions are why McIlroy described a potential victory Sunday as perhaps the greatest achievement of his career. “To be able to win on a course like this with the conditions the way they are, it would probably be my … biggest accomplishment in the game. But (it) definitely would make me feel like a more complete player.”
McIlroy owns the U.S Open record for the lowest score under par from his four-day, 16-under performance at Congressional Country Club in 2011. That kind of score won’t happen at Oakmont, where the most recent Open in 2007 featured winning score of 5 over.
McIlroy stressed the importance of stringing together pars and picking up a birdie or two “here and there” in the Open. The course will require mental fortitude and tactile precision (to avoid the thick rough and bunkers) to make it atop the leader board.
“You can’t slap it around here,” McIlroy said. “You have to hit good shots. You just have to be so disciplined and just plot your way around the golf course.”
Part of the 27-year-old Northern Irish golfer’s plan is to use the grandstands and TV towers to his advantage. He’ll identify them as directional targets, a luxury he said the club’s members don’t have.
For example, on hole No. 16, regardless of the pin placement, McIlroy will hit toward the two TV towers in an attempt to land the ball “seven or eight paces” on the green. Even if he leaves the ball short of the hole, he’d prefer a 30-foot putt uphill rather than an 8-foot put downhill.
It’s an approach that requires a balancing act between discipline, aggression, analytics and, sometimes, blind faith.
“I think you just have to be really disciplined and trust the numbers and trust that you could go a whole round here without hitting it at any pin,” McIlroy said. “I’m an aggressive player as well. So there’s just going to be times where I’m going to have to rein it back a little bit.”
That give and take is a prerequisite for him to take home the U.S. Open Trophy for a second time.
“You look at the winners here at Oakmont,” he said. “Even (Angel) Cabrera last time in ‘07, at that point in his career, when he got on, he was one of the best in the world. I would expect that the more established players in the game and the players that are up near the top of the world rankings to do well this week because it is a golf course that can separate the players that are playing well from the players that are just slightly off their games.”
After turning pro in September 2007, three months after Cabrera won that U.S. Open, McIlroy began his ascent to becoming one of those established, highly ranked players. Only Jason Day and Jordan Spieth rank ahead of McIlroy, a two-time PGA player of the year, in the World Golf Ranking and he believes he’s ready to face the 72-hole giant that awaits him Thursday.
“I feel as prepared as I can be coming in here, and I feel like I’ve got a good game plan for the course,” McIlroy said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and executing it.”