By John Huggan
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Perhaps ominously for those fancying their chances of winning this 113th U.S. Open, he looked quite content with both how he had played and where his three-over par aggregate of 143 was likely to be relative to the eventual leader. Having battled round Mud . . . sorry Merion in 70, PGA champion and former U.S. Open winner Rory McIlroy seemed at ease with his role as one of the more prominent "lurkers" on an already tightly packed board.
"I'm very happy," he said. "I'm right in there for the weekend. I don't think I'll be too far away by the end of the day. Which is a nice position to be in going into the last two days."
(photo by Getty Images)
The 24-year-old Ulsterman was also quick to join the chorus of players pooh-poohing the notion that, even at a "mere" 6,996 yards, Merion was ever going to be a pushover. He even found time to poke a little fun at the assembled scribes, a sure sign that his fettle is fine.
"I didn't hear any of the golfers saying the course was going to be easy," he continued. "It was you guys saying that it was going to be 'scorable.' So you must be very good golfers. There were people saying 63, 64, but that was never going to happen. If you don't hit the fairways here, you're not going to score. If you do hit the fairways, it's still a big challenge from there."
Still, there is little doubt that the large crowd assembling at the sharp end of America's national championship is a symptom of a course set-up that largely forces virtually every member of the field to play almost every hole in pretty much exactly the same way. As a result of that tedium, separating oneself from the rest is a very difficult task.
Then again, this grand occasion is at least partly saved from the USGA's one-dimensional thinking by the wide range of holes Merion offers. McIlroy, for one, is certainly enjoying himself, having found 21 of 28 fairways from the tee (above average) and hit 21 of 36 greens with his approach shots (average). His total of 56 putts was also just about exactly average for the field.
"The variety you get on this golf course is great," he enthused. "Take today, we started gently on 11, 12, 13, where you have wedge shots into the greens. Then there's the short par 3. Then you sort of get a rhythm on 14 through 18, but it's not the right rhythm you want to be in. That stretch doesn't present very many opportunities for birdies. So it's tough for a few holes and then it sort of backs off for a couple, three holes, and then it's tough again."
As for what lies ahead, McIlroy, whose form has been famously erratic so far this year, was cautiously optimistic. He certainly wasn't worried about the winning score.
"At the end of the week, there's going to be a guy lifting the trophy," he pointed out. "It doesn't matter if he's plus-5, minus-5, or plus-16. So it's all about hanging in there. If you're a couple over par, but feel like you should be two or three under par, it's important to remember that it's not just you struggling out there; it's everyone. Merion is that sort of course. There are so many wedges, but you can't get much under par. It's just one of those places where par is a great score."
Which is just what the USGA wants to hear, of course. A winning score of even par -- every U.S. Open's Holy Grail.