In-form Tiger Woods is the one to beat in US Open at Merion

Matt Kuchar feels he’s ready to land his first Major

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy enjoying their practice round at Merion yesterday.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy enjoying their practice round at Merion yesterday.


This is no ordinary place, where the leafy gardens in this part of Ardmore in suburban Philadelphia encroach onto the course surrounds to such an extent that they’ve been used to facilitate the construction of footbridges and other ancillary necessities to enable this 113th edition of the US Open to have what many believe will be an extraordinary place in the championship’s history.

Who knows if the US Open will ever be back here? Or what legacy will be left behind, to join the famed stories of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan? The run-up has been one of distractions. Of Tiger and Sergio. The weather. Tiger’s drought in the Majors. The weather. Rory’s zero wins this season. The weather. Phil staying away until it starts. All, in their own way, contributing to the legend!

Whatever about the different diversions encountered by Messrs Woods and Garcia, McIlroy and Mickelson en route here, the contribution of Mother Nature – in the form of almost five inches of rain inside a week and the prospect of another weather front disrupting the first round – is set to be felt. The rain has altered the preferred firm and fast set-up into a soggier, less penal one and, potentially, opened up the field beyond the usual suspects.

Man to beat
One of those usual suspects, Woods, for sure, remains the man to beat. With four wins so far this season, the world’s number one has rediscovered that strut that once upon a time carried him to 14 Major titles. The thing is, he hasn’t won a Major since the 2008 US Open and, in that time, the floodgates of new champions and the emergence of players wielding long-putters anchored to their bodies, has diluted his aura of invincibility.

But Woods is here, like many others, with only one thing on his mind: to win! The change in the course set-up hasn’t fazed him. “I’ve played (US) Opens where it’s dry and soft. I’ve won on both conditions. At Torrey (Pines) it was dry. Pebble (Beach) was dry. And Bethpage was soft and slow. Either (way), the execution doesn’t change. You’ve still got to hit good shots and get the ball in play, especially with the rough being wet,” said Woods.

This latest US Open examination is on a course playing 6,996 yards – the shortest since Shinnecock Hills in 2004 – and staging the championship, one described as “the crown jewel” of the USGA’s events, for the first time in 1932.

Once considered too short for players armed with modern equipment, the recent rain has managed to take away much of the intended fire and firmness of Merion’s fairways and greens. However, in the run-up, players have batted off suggestions that the magical 63 (the record low score in a Major) will be lowered. McIlroy, for one, opined: “There’s still not going to be that many birdies out here. You’ve still got to hit it on the fairways. It’s still a pretty tight golf course.”

Winning mode
For his own part, McIlroy is intent on finally clicking into winning mode. “I’m just one round off playing great golf. I’ve been playing 14 to 15 holes really well and struggling on the other three. It is (about) having that round where everything just clicks into place. It feels very close. I am driving the ball well. My iron play is great. My short game is good. My putting is better. If I can just put it all together, I feel like I can have a good week,” said McIlroy.

Indeed, of all the players, McIlroy got an extra pep in his step when the rain softened the course. Memories, no doubt, of his US Open win at Congressional (in 2011) and his US PGA win at Kiawah Island in similar conditions came flooding back. “The bit of rain has made the course receptive and soft, it should play into my hands a little bit more,” he acknowledged.

McIlroy, the world number two, is to the fore of a five-strong Irish challenge that also features Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Kevin Phelan.

For his part, McDowell – who has used his accuracy off the tee and his ability to stay focused in the grinding demands of the traditional US Open set-ups – is up for this latest exam. “I’m feeling as good mentally and physically as I ever have in my career.”

McDowell isn’t alone on that front. Matt Kuchar, winner of the Memorial on his last outing, has similar thoughts. “I’m geared up for it, I’m looking forward to competing and trying to put my name on this trophy,” said Kuchar.

Kuchar is looking to a be a first-time Major champion. Woods is looking to end a drought and get his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 back on track. McIlroy is seeking to rediscover the winning habit. Garcia is looking to let his clubs do the talking. Only one will turn deeds into the extraordinary.