US Open 2014: Rory McIlroy seeks out Jack Nicklaus' help in quest to avoid more meltdowns
'Golden Bear' guides young Ulsterman through difficult period as he prepares for this week's tournament
The Palm Beach office of Jack Nicklaus is the default decompression chamber of Rory McIlroy. Two hours in the company of uncle Jack is all that's required to restore our troubled hero to a state of equilibrium.
McIlroy has dealt openly with the tension at the heart of his domestic life following the split with his fiancée Caroline Wozniacki. Victory at Wentworth last month concealed the depth of the emotional maelstrom that engulfed him. Negative commentary, not entirely unexpected, coming out of the Wozniacki camp, intensified an already molten experience.
A week after his Wentworth triumph, McIlroy walked into Jack's Garden at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio and nailed a second-round 78 to an opening 63, three better than the field. Over lunch that week Nicklaus asked McIlroy "how the hell did that happen?" The question prompted a more forensic interrogation of the Nicklaus archive in how to deal with this golfing life.
The result, McIlroy hopes, is a reconstituted golfer, calibrated to get the most of a talent, beginning this week, that Nicklaus acknowledges may be even more profound than his own. "I had a great conversation about everything, business, golf, brand, the whole lot," McIlroy explained. "I got a lot from that. He said to me he was never afraid to change things up in the middle of a round if it wasn't going well. He'd make a swing change right then and there. The mental strength to be able to do that and trust what you're doing is amazing.
"Some of the things he said to me, I'm really thinking about going into this week. He was a great US Open player and hopefully some of those little nuggets of wisdom that he passed on to me might help this week."
It will need to if McIlroy is to avoid a repeat of the same kind of Memorial meltdown that has hit episodically this year. Given a choice the golfers would snap hands clean off for conditions presently making our footballers scream in Manaus. At least Amazonian greens wreathed in moisture would be hospitable hosts to golf balls raining out of the sky.
Baked dry in heat nudging 100°F Pinehurst's elevated, convex saucers have acquired a concrete sheen that threatens to scramble brains as well as scorecards. Pre-tournament forecasts are at the mercy of caprice to a far greater degree than the antediluvian architects of this beautifully restored masterpiece imagined.
‘I had a great conversation about everything,’ said Rory McIlroy after meeting Jack Nicklaus (Getty)
Meditations about the retreat from a penal rough to which the United States Golf Association have been historically wedded in favour of wider fairways that bleed into naturally occurring scrub have been rendered almost irrelevant. This tournament is not so much about the tee shot but the chip and the putt. The golfer who wins this week is the one who smiles when his beautifully hit approach rolls back off the green, and responds by pitching it dead.
"You're going to have to be really creative and inventive around these greens. And that's what I've been working on the past couple of weeks, trying to play a lot of different shots and be comfortable with shots I might need here," McIlroy said.
You might argue, given the sentiment attaching to Phil Mickelson, that the organisers had Lefty in mind when they threw the pitch fork and spade to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to return this fabled terrain to the template rolled out a century ago by Donald Ross. A maiden US Open title after six near-misses would add to the lustre and mystique of America's favourite golfer, the more so since he would join the elite company of those that have won all four major championships; Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.
Mickelson has had a torrid time of it since winning the Open at Muirfield 11 months ago. The putter had been at the root of all evil, but his charge into the top 10 in Memphis last week significantly enhanced the mood and the adoption of a claw grip this week to soften the putting stroke has fired his appetite no end.
Mickelson has never given in to disappointment on the golf course. He is relentlessly upbeat and views a bad break or set-back as an incentive to get his own back. The aura of positivity has rubbed off on that other left-handed maverick with a substantial hold on the American imagination. Bubba Watson has won twice this season, including a second Masters victory in three years, finished second twice and third once.
This upswing in fortune he attributes to a new mental approach. No longer does Watson see failure as an affront. Like many a new father, the arrival of a child has led to a welcome reordering of things. "We started last year talking about rejoicing. 2014 is about rejoicing, rejoicing in all the blessings that I have in my life. My beautiful wife, beautiful son, my team around me, I get to play golf on the PGA Tour. Sometimes I lose perspective of that, of how great we have it on the PGA Tour, how great we have it to play golf for a living."
Watson is choking down on the big stuff here, adopting a more calculating approach to a course to which his game is better suited than you might think. "I grew up at a golf course called Tanglewood in Milton Florida. This looks like the same golf course, so I'm used to hitting out of sand and hard pan. Natural areas they call it here. We call it weeds where I grew up."
Three to watch: Pinehurst pretenders
Phil Mickelson 14-1
Has identified the driver and putter as his key weapons this week. Short game genius. Great value if the preferred claw grip gets the ball rolling on the greens.
Bubba Watson 16-1
Says he is going to choke it down off the tee in favour of a more tactical approach. Still monster long, and wider, rough-free fairways bring Bubba into contention.
Luke Donald 40-1
The winner will be the player who deals best with the up-turned saucers called greens. The reconfigured Pinehurst No 2 might just be made for the king of the up-and-down.
Selected tee-off times
(US unless stated; all times BST)
Starting at hole 1:
12.18pm S Garcia (Sp), J Day (Aus), B Snedeker
12.29pm H Stenson (Swe), M Kuchar, L Westwood (Eng)
12.40pm W Simpson, R McIlroy (NI), G McDowell (NI)
12.51pm I Poulter (Eng), M A Jimenez (Sp), T Jaidee (Thai)
6.14pm S Cink, J Leonard, Y E Yang (Kor)
6.25pm B Watson, A Scott (Aus), C Schwartzel (SA)
6.36pm E Els (SA), D Clarke (NI), L Oosthuizen (SA)
6.47pm J Dufner, K Bradley, M Kaymer (Ger)
6.58pm H Mahan, F Molinari (It), J Donaldson (Wal)
Starting at hole 10:
12.51pm J Rose (Eng), A-M Fitzpatrick (Eng), P Mickelson
6.25pm L Donald (Eng), H English, P Casey (Eng)
6.47pm R Goosen (SA), G Ogilvy (Aus), L Glover
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