SAN FRANCISCO – Adding a tournament before the U.S. Open turned out to be a great move for Rory McIlroy.
Sure, he squandered a chance to win the St. Jude Classic when he was tied for the lead and hit his tee shot on the 18th hole into the water, leading to a double bogey and a tie for seventh. What mattered to McIlroy was at least he had a chance Sunday, and he had not played golf on Sunday in more than a month.
McIlroy had missed the cut in three straight tournaments until last week, which did not bode well for a 23-year-old trying to join Curtis Strange as the only back-to-back U.S. Open champions in more than 60 years.
"I saw some really positive signs out there," McIlroy said. "So for me, looking back on the week, it was a really good idea that I went there. I definitely feel more comfortable about my game going into this week if I hadn't have played. So I'm happy that I did."
One of those cuts he missed was at the Memorial, and that wound up working well for him, too. Instead of hanging around Ohio, McIlroy flew to San Francisco with his father and his swing coach and spent three days at Olympic Club.
It's a different test from Congressional, where he set the U.S. Open scoring record at 16-under 268 to win by eight.
It's a more difficult test.
Olympic has dry turf from plenty of sunshine, heavy air from the coastal location, and movement on just about every fairway. The second hole is to an elevated green protected by bunkers. The third hole is straight down the hill. There is rough around the greens, and some collection areas.
"So really, you just need to know your way around the golf course and know where you can miss it," McIlroy said.
He conceded that those three missed cuts — The Players Championship, BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and the Memorial — began to chip away at his confidence. Except for his first full season on the European Tour, the game started to feel more difficult than McIlroy made it look.
"I think it's only natural you just start to question yourself and question your game a little bit," McIlroy said. "So to play a solid tournament in Memphis and have a chance to win ... that was a disappointing last few holes for me. But leading up to that point, I felt like I played some really good golf. And it was great to see. I hadn't played that sort of golf for a few weeks. It was nice to see that, especially coming into this week."
McIlroy is No. 2 in the world, and part of the 1-2-3 grouping based on the world ranking. He will play with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood the opening two rounds. Donald could use a major to help validate the No. 1 ranking he has held longer than anyone over the last year. Westwood has had close calls in the three majors, and had a decent performance at Olympic in 1998. His opportunities are dwindling.
McIlroy already has one, and while he had to return the trophy this week, he would love to take it home to Northern Ireland.
"Last year at Congressional, it was great to get that monkey off my back ... very early in my career," he said. "It's been great. The last 12 months have been fantastic. I felt like I played very well, and really looking forward to this week and giving it a good go in try to defend."