SAN FRANCISCO—Rory McIlroy was already a well-known golfer in America when he won last year's U.S. Open at Congressional, but after his historic eight-shot victory, he was a sports star.
"I think I'm viewed differently by the golfing public, for sure, and maybe more recognized outside of golf now because of that win," McIlroy said Tuesday at the Olympic Club after a practice round with his good friend Graeme McDowell, his frenemy Lee Westwood and Robert Karlsson.
However, McIlroy said the win was worth a lot more to his golf game than his personal brand.
"In golfing terms, I feel like it's changed me a lot, I feel like it's given me a lot of confidence in these tournaments every time I tee it up," McIlroy said.
He added that the U.S. Open win has changed his expectations at regular tournaments as well.
"You're not just happy with top 10s anymore, and you're not happy finishing in the top five," he said, referring his recent T7 finish at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, a tournament where he had a chance to win. "When you get yourself into positions like I did last week, you want to finish them off and get wins. So, yeah, it's changed a little bit."
One thing that hasn't changed is McIlroy's sense of humor, which he displayed when asked about Irish Heritage Night at Tuesday's Giants game at AT&T Park, where McIlroy will deliver the first pitch and fans will receive a "Rory McIlroy Bobblehead."
"I think maybe it's better-looking than me, which is a good thing," said McIlroy, who has been practicing for his first pitch by throwing golf balls. "I don't know whether to play it conservatively and just lob it into his hand or go for the fast one."
McIlroy said the increased attention -- like his marquee grouping with Westwood and Luke Donald on Thursday and Friday -- helps him play better.
"It focuses your mind a little bit, and you feel like you really want to be prepared for that first hole," McIlroy said. "Of course, having Tiger and Phil and Bubba in the same group on the opposite side of the draw is going to be huge. If I was a golf fan I'd want to watch that group, because I'm sure you'll see some fireworks."
Still, McIlroy isn't above using the response of a more jaded sports star when it comes to a tough question. Asked about the difficulties he's encountered in his quest to maintain the No. 1 ranking now held by Donald, McIlroy echoed the mantra of the player whom he's most compared to on the course, if not in the media center.
Did you hear about Rickie's big shot, which he holed out at a Red Bull event at an outdoor D.C. shopping mall? Check it out here:
Looking at U.S. Open contenders
Here are the U.S. Open odds, via Ladbroke's, the UK oddsmakers, plus our take on each player's chances. Keep in mind that these are not the odds you'll see in Las Vegas, where American Phil Mickelson is the favorite at 10 to 1.
Lee Westwood: 12/1 - It would seem the world's former No. 1 would be a good bet, but he hasn't shown the putting prowess or the mental toughness to get it done. Might not be a lot of good opportunities left for him to snag a major, so this week is big.
Luke Donald: 14/1 - The world's current No. 1 has to be this week's favorite. Playing the best golf of his career and particularly hot right now. Length will be a challenge and his lack of driving accuracy could hold him back. Regardless, this is his time.
Phil Mickelson: 16/1 - Hard to believe he's had five second-place finishes in this tournament, but he has. Phil's about to turn 41 and there probably aren't a lot more U.S. Open charges left in him. Like Westwood, Phil needs to get it done this week.
Rory McIlroy: 20/1 - His final round blowup in the Masters has been overblown. With the exception of Tiger, every great player struggled to overcome major pressure early in their career. McIlroy's got all the tools, but it's probably not going to happen at Congressional.
Dustin Johnson: 25/1 - His length will be a major help, but his inability to close at last year's U.S. Open and PGA Championship won't. Congressional's long and so is its rough, and DJ's lack of accuracy off the tee will do him in.
Martin Kaymer: 25/1 - Fantastic golf swing and great all-around player who's due to win more majors. Not playing his best at the moment, but capable of winning any tournament he enters.
Nick Watney: 25/1 - Like Dustin Johnson, he's got plenty of length and lots of all-around game, and could very likely be a major winner some day. Unfortunately U.S. Open rough and a tough mental challenge will be too much for him this week.
Hunter Mahan: 25/1 - Showed good resiliency by coming back from Ryder Cup disappointment quickly. Is he ready to win a major? Seems possible, but he's going to have to kick up his putting game a notch.
Matt Kuchar: 25/1 - One of the more consistent players out there in the last couple of years, but putter has always been balky. Has as good a chance as anyone this week if his game's firing on all cylinders.
Steve Stricker: 25/1 - One of the quietest players on Tour is also one of the best, and this is probably his best chance to win a major before it gets too late. He's been playing very well, but stumbles down the stretch at Memorial don't say a lot about his ability to close out a big event.
KJ Choi: 33/1 - He's got what seems like the perfect game for the U.S. Open and feels comfortable at Congressional. If he's going to take the next step after winning the Players, this is the time to do it. A good bet.
Justin Rose: 50/1 - Another very talented player who should be coming into his prime. Hasn't shown the grit to get it done in a major as of yet and probably won't this week.
Graeme McDowell: 50/1 - Other than Curtis Strange, no player has won back-to-back U.S. Opens in more than 50 years. Given the way G-Mac's been playing, it's too much to expect another performance like he had at Pebble.
Bubba Watson: 50/1 - Definitely has the length for one of the longest U.S. Open venues in history, but you have to question his ability to handle the pressure. Regardless, he'll be fun to watch.
Jim Furyk: 50/1 - Can't ever count his consistency out at a U.S. Open, but Olympia Fields was a long time ago and his time for winning majors might have passed.
If you’re having trouble understanding why Tiger Woods is skipping this week’s U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Suburban D.C., check out RadarOnline.com, which has a photo of Woods hobbling on crutches with a protective boot on his left leg. RadarOnline.com says the photo was taken Friday in Orlando.
It’s tough to play golf if you can’t walk.
Congressional’s top-secret history
Bill Pennington of The New York Times files a fascinating historical piece about when Congressional Country Club was used a training ground for the Office of Strategic Service, the World World II spy service that became the CIA.
The practice range became a rifle range, and bunkers were used for grenade practice. The dense wooded areas were perfect for nighttime commando exercises, and an obstacle course, set with booby traps, stretched across the first and second holes. Hand-to-hand combat was taught next to a mock fuselage from which paratroopers learned to jump. Men crawled on their bellies across fairways sprayed with live machine gun fire, and the greens made excellent targets for mortar practice. So did the caddie shack and every rain shelter on the course.
“We literally just blew the place up,” said Al Johnson, who, like most of the living O.S.S. veterans — there are about 200 — is in his late 80s.
Adam Scott says he cleared Stevie hire with Tiger
According to Barry Svruga of The Washington Post, Adam Scott is getting his money’s worth out of new caddie for the week Stevie Williams. They’ve played their second practice round at Congressional on Sunday, and Scott said that he cleared the move with Williams’ boss Tiger Woods.
"Steve knew I was in between guys,” Scott said, “and we’ve talked a lot over the years. Anyway, when Tiger had to withdraw, I called him to check if he was available for the week. That’s what he’s doing, and I’m really grateful he’s doing it.”
Everything regarding Woods, though, ends up being a big deal. The 14-time major champion won’t be at Congressional because of lingering issues with his left knee and Achilles’ tendon, and Scott is looking for a permanent caddie. Scott said Williams, who has not worked for anyone other than Woods since they paired up in 1999, called his boss.
“He checked it all out with Tiger,” Scott said. “It’s just for the week. It’s no big deal. But I’m very grateful to both of them for that chance while I’m still looking for a guy full-time. . . . Hopefully I can use his experience late on Sunday. That would be great.”