SAN FRANCISCO The U.S. Open at The Olympic Club has places to picnic, places to watch golf from a hillside, places to buy logoed shirts and caps, places to share drinks with friends and even a place where on a clear day you can see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.
But there’s nowhere to hide.
Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy know.
They arrived at this sloping piece of golf land as the two top-ranked golfers in the world, Donald carrying the chain of chasing his first major championship victory and McIlroy as the defending U.S. Open champion. They’ve been excused for the weekend, their combined score of 21-over par looking like something you and your brother-in-law might shoot in a member-member tournament.
The U.S. Open, traditionally as friendly as the grim reaper, exposed them like a frog in science class.
Luke, tell us about your birdie this week.
“On 4? I suppose there was a little bit of slight consolation that I finally made a putt,” he said with a half-smile that suggested he didn’t entirely appreciate the question. “It was probably about 30 feet. It was a good job it found the middle of the hole because it was going to be 10 feet by.”
The best player in the world - at least No. 1 according to the Official World Golf Rankings - made one birdie in two days. That happens when you miss nine putts inside 10 feet while shooting 79 on Thursday, digging a hole from which a piece of John Deere equipment couldn’t extricate him.
Golf is like water. When it’s going badly, the game finds any crack and slips in, bringing with it spiders, snakes and visions of Ian Baker-Finch’s late-career struggles.
Deep down, Donald knew he was playing with a downed power line when he arrived at The Olympic Club. His swing, as reliable as Swiss timepieces, was off rhythm. At most tour stops, Donald could have probably faked his way around, relied on his short-game magic to keep him close and then wound up on the leader board on the weekend.
The U.S. Open is different. With runaway fairways and firm greens, its level of difficulty goes to 11. It’s one tougher.
Throw in the dream of filling the one void in your career resume and you wind up with a weekend without a tee time.
“I want to win (a major) more than any of you guys know,” Donald told the media. “Obviously, I’ll continue to try and do that.”
McIlroy already has his major championship trophy, having won it in unequalled style last year at Congressional Country Club in Maryland, where he set the U.S. Open scoring record at 16-under par. He shot 65-66 over the first two days at Congressional, 19 stokes better than his 77-73 effort was at The Olympic Club.
Playing his final hole Friday, McIlroy still had a chance to make the 36-hole cut if he could birdie the par-3 eighth. At least it looked that way. He hit his tee shot to 15 feet but missed the birdie putt. He then missed his par putt and stood to the aside, twirling his putter like a baton, until he could finish.
Remember McIlroy’s bouncing walk down the 18th fairway at Congressional on Father’s Day last June? On Friday, he bounced up the wooden stairway to the scoring room like a man who just wanted to escape.
That’s four missed cuts in his last five starts if you’re keeping score at home. Perhaps we were hasty in his coronation as golf’s new king.
“It wasn’t the way I wanted to play,” McIlroy said afterward.
Outside the Olympic clubhouse after his round, McIlroy stood with his management representatives in a small circle, seemingly making plans for whatever is next.
McIlroy looked at his phone. Seeing a wooden door in a fence that hides some mechanical equipment, McIlroy slipped away for a moment.
Seconds later, the door opened and McIlroy re-emerged. It was no place to hide.