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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor