Not only has the new USGA Executive Director, Mike Davis, transformed the US Open by his innovative approach to setting up the courses, he has introduced creativity into the pairings during the first two rounds. This year at Congressional the USGA paired Swede with Swedes, Italian with Italians, Spaniard with Spaniards. (They also paired three Masters’ winners: American Zack Johnson and two South Africans, Trevor Immelman, and Charl Schwartzel, but that is not yet a recognized ethnic group anywhere outside of Augusta.)
Sometimes the ethnic pairings were a little awkward—American Anthony Kim, whose ancestors are Korean, in a group with Korean Y. A. Yang and Japanese phenom Ryo Ishikawa, as if Japan and Korea are somehow the same, even though the historical enmity between the two countries runs deep. They could have created an all-Kim pairing from among the four Kims qualifying for the Open, surely a surname record. The pairings accomplished what I believe the USGA intended, stimulating excitement and interest in a wide array of players, especially in the absence of Tiger Woods, who always attracted the largest galleries.
Paul Azinger, whose acerbic observations add a welcome element of bitters to the generally savory blend of Open commentary, crabbed aloud that these nationality-based pairings would somehow confer an advantage on the international players. Playing with someone they know well, Zinger said, would help them relax. He singled out the Swedes and the Italians, the latter group including not merely countrymen but the fratelli Molanari. This was early in the first round, when players from both of those groups were scoring well—Francesco Molinari was three under after four holes, and Edfors and Stenson each three under after eight.
Professional golfers are trained to ignore outside influences, although whether or not they can succeed in doing so is an enduring challenge—perhaps the issue in championship golf. There were many pairings of Americans, by the way, but no one saw fit to comment on that—it’s the default reality, so it seems “normal.” Webb Simpson, Bill Hass and Jonathan Byrd, for example, played together in the first two rounds, as did Chad Campbell, Harrison Frazar and Marc Turnesa. Did they have an advantage?
None of the pundrity seemed to think so, suggesting that the advantage of national pairings somehow is conferred only on “foreigners. It’s highly unlikely that any of the pairings had an impact on the scoring, though perhaps someone with a richer set of statistical skills than I possess might discover a trend. Given that 72 of the 156 players in the field at the 2011 US Open are international players, discovering any benefit in their foreignness other than skill and courage on the course seems doubtful.
What is not at issue is the extraordinary play in the first two rounds of the young Irishman, Rory McIlroy.
The USGA did not create an Irish threesome, although a group consisting of defending champ Graeme McDowell, three-time major winner Padraig Harrington, and McIlroy would have been the most brilliant on the Championship. But the USGA stuck with its traditional approach to the champion’s pairing: McDowell in the first two rounds with USGA Amateur champ Peter Uihlein and the Open (ie, “British”) champion, Louis Oosthuizen.
Rory McIlroy, playing with Dustin Johnson, who withered as McIlroy flourished, and whose power was matched by a man who seems tiny in the big American’s presence, and Phil Mickelson, of whom much was expected but who visibly deflated when his very first tee shot, on the fearsome par 3 tenth, found the water on Thursday, quickly obliterated any evidence of an enduring effect from his final round meltdown at the Masters. McIlroy was flawless until his 36th hole, when he double-bogeyed after trying an aggressive shot from the rough after his first poor drive in two days, when a cautious approach would likely have yielded nothing worse than a bogey. Still, he takes a six shot lead into the third round, set the all-time two round scoring record, and became the first player ever to reach 13 under par at a US Open. Not bad for a 22 year old player who came to this event with the specter of his Masters’ collapse dominating all commentary and any expectations for him. And he did it playing with foreigners.
So how would Rory do against the “teams” from Sweden, Spain and Italy?Rory shot 66-65 for a total of 131. But if you take his best scores on each hole from the two rounds, how would it compare, for example, to the best-ball of the Swedes –Henrik Stenson, Johan Edfors, and Fredrik Jacobson? How about against the Spaniards, Sergio Garcia, Miquel-Angel Jimenez, and Alvaro Quiros? Or against the Molinari brothers and Matteo Manassero? Remember, these are not the outrider qualifiers, but seasoned touring professionals.
It’s a pretty astonishing comparison, given that it is three top professionals’ balls against one player over the course of two rounds.
The Spaniards collectively posted a best ball of 61, the worst of the three groups, although both Garcia and Quiros made the cut. The Swedes were next, with a combined score of 60, and all three of them made it to the weekend. (With identical 142s, Stenson and Edfors are paired in the third round—another advantage for the Swedes, Zinger?) The Italians had the best collective score, 58, even though their average score was 73.16, compared to Rory’s average score over two rounds of 65.5. Edoardo Molinari and Manassero are also playing on the weekend.
Rory’s “best ball” over his two rounds was 60—he birdied or eagled 9 of the 18 holes, equaling par on the rest.
So by this measure, one young Irishman is the superior of three Spaniards and the equal of three Swedes, but not quite up to a triumvirate of Italians.
What will today bring? Rory McIlroy will stand up to the pressure this time, I am convinced, and on Sunday afternoon will take his place as a champion in the new, improved, fan-friendly and marvelously spirited, contemporary, Mike Davis-influenced version of the US Open.
Saturday Night Update:
Rory’s third round was pretty much a walk in the park. The only drama was in the agonies of the commentators trying to find a story line that would inject some drama into the championship. It was especially delicate talking to the other great players who at this point are so far behind McIlroy. World number one Lee Westwood had a great round of 65 but remains 9–nine!–strokes back. Bob Costas asked him if he still had a chance and he had to say yes, because that is what competitors say, but without uttering the graceless words “but only if Rory has another Augusta collapse.” O.f course there is no way of knowing what Rory will feel like on Sunday. Will the memory of the Masters intrude? I don’t think so, in part because McIlroy handled the aftermath of his collapse so well–he didn’t shirk, he didn’t hide, he didn’t try to bully his interrogators into silence, as the world’s most recent dominant player would have. He calmly answered questions with intelligence and poise, regaining his emotional equilibrium quickly. The quality of his game, the skills that put him in the final group at Augusta on Sunday hadn’t abandoned him, he had simply had a bad day, which under the pressure of a major enlarged into an corrosive mess. But he has clearly recovered, and tomorrow he will continue his march towards greatness. By the end of the final round on Sunday, only Tiger’s peerless performance at Pebble will belong in the same discussion of the greatest major triumphs ever with Rory’s four days at Congressional. At 22, McIlroy has the game, the temperament, and the focus to launch himself onto a path towards matching Tiger’s 14 majors.