McIlroy and McDowell in Washington spotlight

All eyes will be on two Northern Irishmen this week: one is the defending champion, the other should be Masters champion

It is not just nationality and friendship uniting Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell here at the 111th US Open Championship. They call America's national championship "golf's toughest major" and as far as tests go this pair of Ulstermen are being billed as facing perhaps the most arduous of their careers.

Appropriately enough for a course named in the honour of Congress, the inquiry will be both searching and very, very public. One is depicted as the defending title-holder attempting to survive the glare and handle the traditional need to justify the champion's standing; the other happens to be the boy who blew the Masters in spectacular and humiliating fashion and is being asked to prove the scars are not lasting. McDowell and McIlroy are up on capital hill ready to be shot at.

That's one way to look at. The pair have another viewpoint, which blessedly doesn't entail dusting off the cat-tails and beating themselves in recrimination. At 22, McIlroy is prepared to allow himself some slack, while McDowell believes any pressure has been lifted. All in all their attitude is good news for a European cause positively brimming with possibility, if not probability.

Still, there will be the imponderables to negotiate first and for McIlroy this entailed what advice he has for LeBron James, the basketball giant, who has reportedly not taken the defeat of Miami Heat in the recent NBA finals too graciously. America has rejoiced in McIlroy's response to his Masters demise and are holding him up as a role model. Thus, a player barely out of his competitive nappies is pressed to give guidance to one of sport's superstars. "I think he's been unfairly scrutinised," said McIlroy taking to the task manfully. "Everyone is going to have bad days, if it's on a course or on a court. With sports these days everything is overanalysed."

He could have talking about his own Masters meltdown and at least it negated a few of the "what did you learn at Augusta?" queries. As, of course, did McIlroy's trip last week to Haiti as an ambassador of a children's charity. McIlroy did not disappoint when encouraged to expand on the effects of such an eye-opening experience. "I thought I had perspective before going to Haiti, and then actually seeing it, it just gives you a completely different view on the world and the game that you play," said McIlroy. He went on to speak about the sanitation problems in the earthquake-ravaged country, talking passionately about the work being done. The plan is to return within a year.

McIlroy's work with Unicef is no doubt admirable – after all, how many sportsmen his age would donate anything than their image to the cause, let alone things as precious as their time and sensitivity? – but the inevitable link with his major capitulation is, at best, opportunistic. The truth is McIlroy does not play the shattered young man very well. He is trying to maintain a balance and on the flip side of the negative he shuts out what could be construed as the positive as well.

Yesterday, Ernie Els, the champion the last time the US Open was held here 14 years ago, tipped his International Sports Management stablemate as a "future world No 1, without a doubt". "He can really change history again," added Els. "He's got that kind of talent... I think he's going to win a lot of majors." McIlroy visibly squirmed when he was told of the comments.

"I've learned over the past few months you can't take a lot of notice of what other people say," he said. "It's very flattering and it's great that people are saying I'm going to win majors but I need to do it first. And I haven't done it yet. Hopefully I'll be sitting in front of the media on Sunday night and saying, 'yeah, maybe I could be a multiple major champion."

The chances of such a scenario should not be discounted, no matter how freshly the images of that final-round 80 at Augusta hang in the mind. McIlroy finished in the top three in the two preceding majors – the USPGA at Whistling Straits and the Open at St Andrews – and in the words of his manager Chubby Chandler, "comes alive in the majors". Where as most of his rivals yesterday were predicting level par to win this US Open, McIlroy set his sights higher and the winning score lower. "I reckon it will be a little under par," said McIlroy. "I love this set-up." His top-five finish at the Memorial two weeks ago was ideal preparation and the report from his camp is that the McIlroy mojo is back.

And so quite clearly is that of his great pal McDowell. So much for the crippling burden of expectation of becoming the first European in 40 years challenged with defending the US Open. He's been swaggering around here with all the freedom of a caddie lugging an empty holdall. "It's bizarre because if anything I feel like the glare is off me this week," said McDowell. "Having arrived here I feel a weight has been lifted. My US Open trophy is back with the USGA, the media stuff is over and I'm really happy it's all done because I want to look forward to what I want to achieve for the rest of my career. You know, it's tough to look forward when all anybody wants to discuss is the past. That's what it's been like. But now the talking has stopped, I feel less pressure."

The Pebble Beach hangover clearly affected McDowell more than he let on. But then, that is reasonable. Sportsmen do not like to discuss the drawbacks of glory; or, indeed, of ignominy. As one of the most honest and erudite characters on the circuit, McDowell is prepared to analyse the first five months of a campaign which acted as a brake on his expectations after the giddying, free-wheeling ride to the top of the game's order. McDowell began 2010 just inside the world's top 50 and finished it in the top five as the hero of the winning Ryder Cup team. It would be wrong to say 2011 has seen him jam into reverse, although the momentum has palpably left his surge.

"I guess I hit my brick wall and I've been trying to get over that wall ever since," said McDowell. "Yeah, I've hit a rough patch this year, but I really felt my game coming around the last four or five weeks. That spell from the Players to Wales, I know in my heart how well I played, even though I got nothing out of that month. I blew it at the Players. The World Match Play is the World Match Play, Wentworth, I missed the cut by one having struck it as well as I have all year and Wales I blew it in the third round. I've turned a corner and I'm really excited about this week and then the summer."

McDowell's newly-discovered confidence has not just come from the technical or the mental but also, as far as this staggering property is concerned, the external. It opened its arms to him when he signed in on Monday. Two months ago, in his duties as defending champion, he turned up for the Media Day and received the golfing equivalent of a punch in the nose. Then, Congressional was playing every inch, and beyond, of it's 7,574 yards. To McDowell it seemed on the implausible side of impossible.

"It's changed radically," he said, with something resembling a beam. "It's weird but the course doesn't feel that long any more. I hit an eight-iron into the 11th and at the Media Day I hit driver, three-wood – and I was short. Okay, it was playing downwind but it's amazing how a course can change. Now, I don't think length here will be a massive issue at all. Accuracy off the tee will be key, those greens are so firm you're going have to be able control your flight. I like the way it sets up. Someone asked me yesterday what type of player does this place favour. Well, it's certainly not a bomber."

McIlroy is a bomber, McDowell is a plotter. The latter has his major, the former is still waiting. But for as many differences there are similarities, mostly concerning what they must or must not prove. It just goes to show that at the US Open the demands never cease.

Double Macs: Tale of the two Irishmen

Graeme McDowell

Age 31

Born Portrush, Northern Ireland

Turned professional 2002

Pro wins 8 (7 European Tour, 1 PGA Tour)

Major championship appearances 22

Best in Majors Winner, 2010 US Open

Career earnings $14,690,050

Ryder Cups played in 2008, 2010 (winners)

Ryder Cup record 8 matches, 5 points

World ranking 7

Rory McIlroy

Age 22

Born Holywood, Northern Ireland

Turned professional 2007

Pro wins 2 (1 European Tour, 1 PGA Tour)

Major championship appearances 10

Best in Majors Tied 3rd, 2010 Open and PGA Championship

Career earnings $9,700,585

Ryder Cups played in 2010 (winners)

Ryder Cup record 4 matches, 2 points

World ranking 8

people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
His band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering