As Tiger Woods continues his resurgence he has been credited with assisting American golf’s own upswing. The US Open gets under way on Thursday with the United States seeking to maintain a run in which it holds every men’s major championship and significant transatlantic team trophy.
Such a scenario will always resonate in a Ryder Cup year. The man Europe will place the most faith in when the USA visit France in September, Rory McIlroy, believes the return of Woods has had a positive impact on his countrymen. Woods, amid this compelling return from back surgery, tees off at Shinnecock Hills seeking to add a 15th major to his CV.
“The great young players from this country, they’re playing well,” said McIlroy. “They have had a great run. They have probably a couple of guys – but one in particular – that they try to emulate who’s back out here playing and he has become a friend of theirs.
“I think that’s been a huge part of all this. A lot of these guys have gotten to know Tiger. And being able to say: ‘OK, this is what he does. And we mightn’t be able to achieve everything that he has but we can at least try to do that.’ I think that’s been a huge thing for Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups and them as individuals as well.”
Not that McIlroy is overawed by the recurring sight of stars and stripes. “These things go in cycles,” added the Northern Irishman. “European golf was very healthy a few years ago, for a long time. It seemed every major someone from the island of Ireland turned up to, we were winning it. It doesn’t seem that long ago.
“There are a lot of strong players but I feel good about my game. I just want to give myself another chance to win another major championship. It’s another opportunity to try and do something great this week.”
Should he do so, and in contradicting the sense that he has endured a low-key year, McIlroy could return to No 1 in the world. He has accumulated more ranking points in 2018 than any other player.
In truth it would be no shock if a European prevailed here. McIlroy has a fondness for the course and has performed well in practice. Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm and Henrik Stenson have strong claims on a links-like venue that was softened by heavy Wednesday rain. Wide fairways mean this is a second-shot course, where approach play is key to glory.
If Woods would be by far the most high-profile winner, perhaps Phil Mickelson could lay claim to the most endearing tale. Mickelson, who turns 48 on Saturday, needs only the US Open to round off a grand slam of major titles. He has been second or tied second in this major half a dozen times. Mickelson tees off on Thursday morning in the company of McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.
“This is a golf course he obviously likes,” said McIlroy. “He plays well in the New York area. He should have nothing but good, positive vibes going into this week. He won for the first time in a few years earlier this year so his game’s in good shape.
“Phil’s had six runner-ups at this event. He’s played wonderfully. It’s just someone has played a little better at a certain week or maybe he made a mistake at the wrong time. It’s not as if he’s had a poor US Open record. His US Open record is incredible.
“If I wasn’t playing and just purely as a fan of golf, I’d love to see Phil win this week because it’s great for the game. It’s a huge story in the game of golf. And as someone involved in the game, I think it would be really cool for that to happen. Seeing as I’m playing in the tournament, I’d rather beat him and not have that happen. But if it isn’t me that wins this week, it would be a great story if Phil was to win.”