Rory on this Open: ‘The toughest test of the year’

© Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It’s the U.S. Open, America’s golfing championship, demanding, frustrating and, if the shots are pure and the bounces are fortunate, rewarding.

“It’s obviously the toughest test of the year,” said Rory McIlroy.

As it should be.

And this year the 119th Open, which begins Thursday, is back at Pebble Beach, with its small greens and big challenges.

“The worst place you can miss it on this course,” said McIlroy, “is pin-high. If you miss the green and you miss it pin-high, you’re dead.”

Rory, who won the Open in 2011, would seem very much alive. He took last weekend’s RBC Canadian Open in record fashion. His swing is free. His mind is uncluttered. He’s carrying an extra wedge — four in all — but no extra baggage.

“I feel like my game has been in good shape all year,” said McIlroy, “and it’s nice to validate the good work I’ve been putting in with another win.”

Rory, now 30, a four-time major winner, really needs no validation.

Neither does Pebble Beach. It can be a course of mystery — on Wednesday, the fog had returned to the coast, dropping the temperature to the 60s, normal — and masking Point Lobos and other locations across Carmel Bay in eerie grayness.

It has been a course of history. Jack Nicklaus won both the 1961 U.S. Amateur and 1972 U.S. Open here.

And McIlroy, typical among golfers, has a great sense of history, both from growing up in Northern Ireland where the game is revered and then from playing against or meeting with the icons of past and present.

“I played here in 2010,” said McIlroy, the Open won by countryman Graeme McDowell. “It was really cool. I didn’t play very well, but I got to play the first three rounds with Tom Watson, and that was his final U.S. Open.”

Watson, the Stanford man, won his only Open at Pebble in 1982.

“And we were talking about it (Tuesday) night at the (Champions) dinner. It’s so cool how this game can cross generations. And Jack was talking about how he played with (Gene) Sarazen in the ’72 Open, or whatever it was.”

It was ’72, and Sarazen, 70 at the time and a special invitee to the Open, had won the tournament in 1922 and ’32.

“Just to think that, how many generations this game can span,” McIlroy pointed out, “is really cool.”

Cool is a word you’ll hear a great deal this weekend at Pebble, but in a literal sense, The unusual heat wave that sent the thermometer at Pebble and Monterey in into the 80s — and at inland areas 20 miles away into the 100s — has gone. Now it’s what everyone has come to expect.

For weather conditions and course conditions.

“I think the setup this week is awesome,” said McIlroy.

You won’t hear the frequent griping about how the U.S. Golf Association prepares an Open course from McIlroy, who was taught, in a sense, to shut up and play.

“The greens are perfect," McIlroy insisted. “Fairways are great. The rough is thick. It’s tough. But it you hit it off line you’re going to get punished. I think it’s a very fair setup. With conditions being a little cooler and windy, you can see it get firm, and it’s going to get tricky. You’re going to have to make sure if you miss it, you give yourself certain angles.”

Which means playing intelligently instead of carelessly. Better to settle for a par, or even a bogey, then end up with a brutally high score on any particular hole, say the eighth, or the par-3 17th, where the hourglass-shaped green is almost swallowed by deep bunkers.

On Tuesday night at the Champions dinner, McIlroy was deep into nostalgia.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Thirty-three of the 36 living U.S, Open champions. We shut the place down, just chatting... And there were some artifacts from the USGA museum, Hogan’s 1-iron from (the 1950 championship) at Merion; the golf ball Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam with (1930); Arnold Palmer’s visor that he threw in the air (1960) at Cherry Hills.

This, then, is the place to be, a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It doesn’t get much better than this.