San Francisco – With two rounds to go, one thing has certainly come into focus. The player who wins will be the one who has best adapted his game to the conditions at Olympic, and the course itself.
The fairways and greens are rock-hard, well, as near as possible for turfgrass. It makes no sense to fly the ball directly to targets. The idea is to feed the ball off slopes, and, just about every time, play to a spot well short of the intended target. That will be true even though the USGA applied plenty of moisture to the greens Friday after play and then before the third round started. The greens had dried out even more than the USGA wanted.
Rory McIlroy didn't cope with Olympic's demands, and missed the cut. McIlroy shot 77-73 to miss by two shots, and acknowledged that he didn't go an effective job of handling the conditions. He won the U.S. Open last year on a soft Congressional course in Bethesda, just outside Washington, D.C., and he won it by eight shots. McIlroy isn't a fan of golf on the ground. That's odd to the point of being bizarre because he's from Northern Ireland and has played plenty of links golf there.
"We're not used to having to land balls before the edge of the greens to let them run on," McIlroy said after his second round. He'll play the Irish Open June 28-July 1 at justifiably famous Royal Portrush links in Northern Ireland, and then the Open Championship next month at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in Lancashire, Eng. Barring soft conditions, which are unlikely unless the weather doesn't cooperate, McIlroy will need to adjust better to contend in the championships.
That means he will need to become more than a one-dimensional player, and it's difficult to believe he doesn't have that in him. McIlroy is only 23, and, of course, much was expected of him after he ran roughshod over the field in last year's U.S. Open. He later won the Hong Kong Open on the European Tour, and, in March, the PGA Tour's Honda Classic. But he's had a poor run the last six weeks.
It's a step in the right direction that McIlroy has recognized his own limitations. He might want to pay close attention to what Jack Nicklaus said this week. Nicklaus was at the U.S. Open because the USGA was inaugurating the Jack Nicklaus Medal. The U.S. Open champion will receive the medal this year and from now on. Nicklaus won four U.S. Opens between 1962 and 1980.
"A lot of people say, this golf course doesn't suit my game," Nicklaus said. "Which to me is the most ridiculous statement you ever hear, for the reason that the golf course is not supposed to suit your game. You're supposed to suit your game to the golf course. That's why we play a different site every year, otherwise we'd play on the same site."
Meanwhile, in looking for more insight into McIlroy, I turned to Ivan Morris, an accomplished senior amateur golfer who lives in Limerick, Ireland. He's played competitive amateur golf for many years, and recently took to writing about golf. Ivan is nothing if not opinionated, and his views on course architecture, instruction, the amateur and pro games, and players themselves, are always worth reading. His new book Life as a Way of Golf is his fourth. It's informative and entertaining, and, as I say, opinionated. To read it is to feel oneself debating with the writer.
Here's what Ivan offered after McIlroy missed the cut. He's been e-mailing me all week.
"Rory's admission that he cannot adjust to running the ball onto greens instead of peppering flags mystifies me," he wrote. "Poor strategy more than poor play is at the heart of it. Last year's U.S. Open was not the usual test and Rory got away with freewheeling it. He'll face similar problems at Lytham and Kiawah (Kiawah Island's Ocean course where the PGA Championship will be played in August)."
"If he doesn't figure it out he'll miss those cuts too – as I had the gall to predict some weeks ago," Ivan continued. "Rory should take the time to study the way G-Mac (2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell), Tiger and [Jim] Furyk have been tiptoeing around Olympic."
McDowell is four shots behind co-leaders Woods and Furyk. The three golfers have indeed been tiptoeing around Olympic. McIlroy was unable to do that, whether as a fault of poor play or mistaken strategy. He's out, they are in, and golf fans are also in. We're in for a treat as we move into what promises to be a weekend full of drama, and plenty of tiptoeing, at firm and fast and treacherous Olympic.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein