Best mate McDowell points out error of McIlroy's ways

While nobody has much positive to comment about Tiger Woods at the moment, so nobody has much negative to say regarding Rory McIlroy. But the halfway leader of the US Open did – which was something of a surprise since Graeme McDowell happens to be McIlroy's best mate.

"Rory plays gung-ho golf, he doesn't put a lot of thought into what he does," ventured McDowell when asked to explain the Ulster prodigy's second missed cut in as many majors. "He relies on sheer talent. But I would imagine Rory has not really put enough thought into this course as regards a game-plan. He's a young kid, he grips and rips it. It's not US Open golf. You've got to place it, plot your way around and play smart."

Strong words, but extremely difficult to contradict. On his way to 10-over and an early flight east, McIlroy did indeed resemble a big boy lost on a bigger man's course. Nobody knows the quality of the kid more than McDowell – his World Cup partner and would be Ryder Cup partner – and nobody is more certain of the 21-year-old's destiny. Except it might not come to pass as quickly as the Rory Ra-Ra Crew screams it shall. "All this will come with experience," said McDowell. "I think Rory will win majors, no doubt about it. But like I say, right now he's a little bit of a raw talent."

But if McIlroy's fulfilment lies in the future then McDowell went out here yesterday believing his could be but a few more supremely-controlled rounds away. A second-round 68 had taken him to three-under and into a two-shot lead. "It's a nice position to be in," he said. In truth, few in the US believed him. They saw a chasing pack including Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els and assumed it was a very sticky position to be in. With the leaders not off until 3.50pm local time yesterday – to ensure a prime-time TV finish on the west coast – the Saturday gaze at the majors never seemed so intense.

The night's viewing promised everything, with a handy little warm-up act in Woods. At four-over, the world No 1 was seven off the pace but promising: "I'm still right there in contention." To make this declaration seem anything more than delusional he would have to emulate the display of his nemesis a day previous. On Friday Mickelson's 66 had sent fireworks soaring over the Monterey Peninsula – and the Masters champion crackling into contention for a second successive major.

Of course, the left-hander's cheer-charged fightback from an opening 75 only served to heap the pressure on Woods' challenge. There was more at stake than mere majors and millions here. The world No 1 status is very much up for grabs and who would have ever thought that would be so at the layout where Woods' dominance had seemed so unbreakable with that 15-stroke victory 10 years ago?

Indeed, who would have thought that Woods would ever feel desperate enough to blame this much-loved course for his failings? Or that the officials would feel brave enough to chuck "the greens are just awful" rant right back in his face?

"He's wrong," so David Fay, the USGA executive director said yesterday. "The greens are smoother than they were [when Woods won] in 2000. It was a harsh thing for him to say. We can take criticism when it's warranted. But this is not useful criticism."

So why did Woods do it? "That's what elite golfers do," added Fay. "They find something to blame. Although not all the time. Phil [Mickelson] came in from a bad putting round on Thursday and said he made bad strokes."

The contrast was stark. In truth it has been ever since the Tiger sex scandal broke. While he proceeded to suffer in the family hell of his own making, the Mickelsons battled through their own nightmare. Cancer was their enemy; Mickelson's wife Amy and his mother Mary both being diagnosed with and treated for breast tumours. While it was palpably unfair to beat one man with another's bad luck, in the case of Tiger and Phil the American galleries found it irresistible. Two husbands with problems at home; one with no right to sympathy.

Golf saw it at The Masters in April and as the 110th US Open reaches its peak audience the majority were anticipating witnessing it again. What swayed public opinion ever further in Mickelson's direction was his relationship with the game's toughest major. Five times he has finished runner-up and five times his country has cried for the gambling swashbuckler whose go-for-it style is so unsuited to this tournament's attritional requirements. In fact, that should give McIlroy hope. As should the presence of an 18-year-old teeing off high up the leaderboard.

Ryo Ishikawa, Japan's Bashful Prince, was a central figure last night in both the pursuing pack and the storyline. With the 40-year-old Els on the same mark as Ishikawa, Mickelson and the course specialist Dustin Johnson, there was so much to arrest the focus. For England there were Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Ross McGowan and – just about – Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, in touch. The spectacular links was beckoning them forth and will again today. It is fair to say young Rory knows what he is missing.

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