Joined The Augusta Chronicle as a sports columnist in February 2001. Previously covered a myriad of sports including golf, NFL, NHL and college basketball in five years for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. Served as a sports designer and editor at the Winston-Salem Journal, Newport News Daily Press and Charlottesville Daily Progress. Started professional career as a small college and minor-league baseball writer for the News & Daily Advance in Lynchburg, Va., in 1989.
Posted June 19, 2011 07:28 pm - Updated June 19, 2011 09:44 pm

McIlroy romp needs no asterisk

BETHESDA, Md. - A pair of two-time U.S. Open winners - Curtis Strange and Andy North - almost seemed offended. They turned their noses up at Congressional Country Club as a U.S. Open test.

"It's not hard enough," sniffed Strange from his television soapbox. "It's supposed to be the toughest tournament in the world."

It certainly wasn't this week with 20 players breaking par for the week. The rough was uncharacteristically manageable and the greens were stressed and softened by a pre-tournament heat wave followed by nightly doses of rain since Wednesday that provided target practice at times for the world's best players.

But before anyone starts putting an asterisk beside all the records Rory McIlroy set this week, consider what the 22-year-old did that nobody else could do with his four rounds in the 60s.

"It's not like anybody is close. I wasn't close," said three-time major winner Padraig Harrington. "Definitely the course was certainly set up for scoring with the greens being soft, and ultimately that leads to good scoring. This won't be a U.S. Open that people go away thinking, well, maybe it should have been. There's only one winner and nobody is going to second-guess that."

The USGA and set-up man Mike Davis got the usual barbs thrown at them by critics like Strange and North, but the truth is they were hamstrung by circumstances beyond their control. What they should get lauded for is not succumbing to the temptation to "trick" things up to protect par, the way the blue coats have been known to do before Davis brought his level-headed leadership to the helm.

"I give all credit to the USGA," said television analyst David Feherty. "They could have sucked these greens bone dry with the sub-air system and tried to make them faster and all they would have done is make them un-puttable. Believe me, that's the sort of mistake a few years ago that they would have made in a heartbeat, a heartbeat. Whatever, put landmines out there, whatever it takes, stinging nettles, but make sure they don't get to 10 under. But they have done exactly the right thing this week. It's a great golf course, but it's a canvas and these guys are artists. They are out there painting. The low scores are not an insult to the golf course, but a compliment to the player."

Phil Mickelson agreed, even though he was finger-painting next to Michelangelo this week. He watched McIlroy create his art through two nearly flawless rounds this week and appreciated what he saw.

"I thought the course was set up great," Mickelson said. "I thought that the soft conditions obviously made it a little bit easier than everybody had hoped. ... I think the great thing about this tournament, the course and the setup, is that the best player this week is going to win."

Count reigning Masters champion Charl Schwartzel among the impressed after carding a bogey-free 65 to finish tied for ninth.
"As good as I played today, Rory has played all four days," Schwartzel said. "What he's doing is pretty spectacular really."

It certainly says something that runner-up Jason Day's score of 9-under would have won 49 of the 50 previous U.S. Opens. But he and the rest of the field never came close to scaring McIlroy's record-shattering 16-under finish. Whatever qualifiers the players made about Congressional's accommodating ways this week, they weren't casting aspersions at McIlroy's dominance.

"It's not really a U.S. Open golf course, to be honest," said former world No. 1 Martin Kaymer, the reigning PGA champion. "It plays softer. You have birdie chances the first nine. It plays fairly easy. If you hit the fairways, you can go straight at the flags. And the greens, they roll along. Still, 16-under, or wherever he'll finish today, it's very impressive and I'm very happy for him. The way he plays golf, it's a different golf. It's close to perfect."

Hardly anyone was more surprised at how forgiving Congressional was than defending champion Graeme McDowell. When he came to town for a media day in April, he declared that an over par score would win the U.S. Open.

He whiffed that prediction. So sue him.

"You know, the day I came here, I think my head was in a little bit of a mess," McDowell admitted. "I just came off the back of the Zurich Classic in New Orleans and probably played the worst golf of my life. I don't think I could see the wood for the trees. It was a cold, wet day and the ball wasn't going very far.

"The golf course setup has been very un-U.S. Open like this week. I know the USGA wanted it firm and fast and wanted these greens 14 on the stimp and Mother Nature has kicked in and the greens have been soft. The rough has not been particularly penal. It's been set up for scoring, you know. It's as simple as that."

In that way this performance by McIlroy differs greatly from Tiger Woods' 15-stroke romp at Pebble Beach in 2000. Woods went 12-under that week (it would have been 16-under, too, if the USGA hadn't reduced par from 72 to 71 despite playing it longer than any previous U.S. Open at Pebble), but he was the only player to break par on a grueling course.

"You can't compare it (to 2000)," said Steve Stricker, the top-ranked American in this week's field. "They could never get it to the speed they wanted to get it. That's why you're seeing the scores are so good. It's kind of borderline. Some guys can get off and play well but it's still tough. You've still got to drive the ball in the fairway and do all the other things right. If you're on your game, you can score."

Does what happened this week make it unlikely the USGA will ever bring its biggest championship back to the suburbs of the nation's capital?

"Oh yeah, it should come back for sure," Stricker said. "The weather dictated the play and one guy is making it look bad. Next year at Olympic, it could be a tough set-up."

The might have McIlroy to thank for any extra suffering next year.