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U.S. OPEN: McIlroy arriving hot

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Hopefully, Rory McIlroy gets over a fun night out better than the rest of us.

Who are we kidding? Of course, he does.

After his runaway win at the RBC Canadian Open in Hamilton on Sunday, I asked Rory McIlroy whether he wished the U.S. Open started on Monday. He said no, he’d be hungover. Along with a headache, McIlroy is bringing a scorching hot game to California and the season’s third major at Pebble Beach.

“I think when you get to the U.S. Open setup it can make you play careful, a little tentative and try to guide it down the fairways,” he said on Sunday evening in Hamilton. “But if I’ve learned anything this week it’s my game is good enough and swing is good enough that I can play with freedom.”

The freedom McIlroy speaks of was immediately noticeable on his tee shots all week. When you see him with that full-release and zero resistance in his follow through, it’s almost unfair. The mental scar tissue that a professional golfer inevitably develops by age 30 isn’t supposed to allow for such a worry-free swing. That trademark follow-through strikes as much fear in opponents as his trademark bounce down the fairway does — and they usually go hand in hand.

The four-time major champion worked hard on taking the volatility out of his golf and changing his attitude towards the game. For years, the Irish prodigy was a streaky player who was as likely to miss the cut as he was to win the tournament. He also found himself taking his golf game home with him, good or bad. He started focusing on what he calls “the three Ps”— perspective, persistence, and poise. By separating Rory the golfer from Rory the person, he found consistency on the golf course, finishing in the top six in his first five tournaments of 2019.

The change wasn’t without risk though. McIlroy admitted early in the year that a volatile, hot-or-cold golf game is a good way to win golf tournaments against today’s ultra-aggressive players and ultra-deep fields. It’s also a good way to miss cuts. Plus, off the course, it wasn’t how he wanted to live. His big win at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in March was the affirmation he was looking for that he was on the right track.

But then 12 weeks, and more importantly, two majors went by. He had three top tens in five events over the stretch, but didn’t contend at either the Masters or the PGA Championship, failing to break 70 Thursday or Friday at either.

On Sunday night I asked him if it was about time for another affirmation.

“I think so, I think this time it’s more of an affirmation of what I can do when I play with complete freedom like I did I today or over the weekend,” he said. “I felt like this week it was just – I was free. I trusted myself 100% and I hit the shots when I needed to. Honestly, this victory probably gives me more confidence than the one at The Players.”

PEBBLE SOFT … FOR NOW

Pebble Beach always looks like paradise, but with a great growing season so far this spring, it’s greener and softer than usual. The fairways are perfect and the rough is a very healthy four inches in most spots.

“The USGA is going to be able to do whatever they want with it,” Rickie Fowler said after his practice round Monday. “It’s soft right now. Saturday it got to where it was good, fast, firm. And then put water on it Saturday to kind of hold it and, like I said, it’s in a position where with the weather where it’s at right now, I think it can go wherever they want it to.”

After an unusually hot weekend, and Monday reaching 26 C, the forecast for the tournament is four days of partial sun and temperatures in mid to high teens.

Although conditions are expected to be much firmer come Thursday, and the rough likely will get trimmed one last time, it’s possible that the ball won’t be running much on the fairway. Should that be the case, it will lengthen the 7,075-yard, par-71 seaside course and put a premium on landing your ball in the right spot on the fairway, like it was in Hamilton.

Several players, including McIlroy, said the RBC Canadian Open was a great place to tune up for the U.S. Open.

“I think the poa greens for sure, to putt on those two weeks in a row is going to be quite good,” McIlroy said before leaving Hamilton. “Then I think just variety of the tee shots around here. Obviously hitting driver on some holes, but then there is a lot of 3-woods and 5-woods and irons off tees.”

“I’m guessing the rough next week may be a little longer, but you needed to hit fairways this week to give yourself a chance to shoot a low score.”

STEVIE AND J-DAY?

Jason Day will have a recognizable face on his bag this week at Pebble Beach.

Steve Williams makes his debut alongside Day, who is looking to regain his form from 2015, when he won five times and was in every discussion of the world’s best player. This is either the greatest or worst decision by the uber-talented 31-year-old. Both men are from Down Under but that would seem to be the extent to which the pair have anything in common.

Tiger Woods’ former caddie Williams is known for being tough, gruff, and no-nonsense. Day is one of the game’s kindest souls who, at times, seems too nice to endure the up-and-down career of a professional athlete.

There aren’t five players in the world with more talent than Day – there might not even be one – which likely is why this decision was made because he shouldn’t be stuck at one major victory. Even if Williams is just what he needs, we have a hard time believing he’ll be just what he needs for very long.

CHIP SHOTS

Tiger Woods wasn’t at the RBC Canadian Open, instead, he arrived Sunday at Pebble Beach to prepare. He played practice rounds both Sunday and Monday and plans to meet with the media on Tuesday. Woods will play the opening two rounds with Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose … It was cool to see McIlroy examine the RBC Canadian Open trophy and find the names of Sam Snead, Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods and Nick Price. He appeared genuinely humbled and full of pride to know his name would join them … Congrats to Former Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, Jan Stephenson, Retief Goosen, Dennis Walters and Peggy Kirk Bell, who were set to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday night … Mike Weir and Nick Taylor are the only two Canadians in the U.S. Open. Both men made it through sectional qualifying in late May. Weir tees off at 7:29 a.m. on Thursday with Luke Donald and Brendon Todd. Taylor tees off at 7:18 a.m. with Scottie Scheffler and amateur Matt Parziale.

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