Hard work pays off for revitalised McIlroy
Rory McIlroy's three wood dropped to the floor in frustration as his ball flew into the watery grave that signalled an end to his victory chance in Memphis last Sunday (link).
The resulting double bogey opened the door for Dustin Johnson and left McIlroy in a share of seventh place.
Although that errant tee shot ruined the Northern Ireland youngster's opportunity to win, he could still reflect on having had the week he needed ahead of his US Open defence. He is competitive once again.
Recently McIlroy has been cramming like an underprepared student at exam time.
But now, after adding Memphis to his schedule, flying in coach Michael Bannon to be with him in the US and taking an extra three and half days to practice at the US Open venue, he looks ready to sit this week's major paper.
All will be well, provided there is enough left in the tank after this energetic response to missing three cuts in a row.
A repeat of last year's astonishing US Open victory at Congressional is surely asking too much, but McIlroy's game certainly looks in shape for him to contend at Olympic Club.
"Rory McIlroy remains firmly on course for a stellar career." Photo: Getty
And a year on it is well worth putting that triumph on the outskirts of Washington into its proper context. This was an extraordinary performance that has wrongly been diminished by some observers who claim the course was too easy to be a genuine US Open test.
Admittedly, heavy rains in the build-up to the 2011 Championship softened the course, which at 7,574 yards was the second longest in US open history. McIlroy finished a record 16 under par, his next closest rival Jason Day was a mere eight under.
But the Australian runner-up's score is not far off what you would expect to win on a softened US Open par 71 layout. In 1997, when it was 361 yards shorter, Congressional was rated par 70 and Ernie Els won at four under.
Par is always a subjective area, but had it remained 70 (as it might have, given the advances in driving distances in the past 15 years) then only eight players would have broken par at last year's US Open.
It's also worth remembering another closing hole double bogey suffered by McIlroy. It came in his second round at Congressional and gave him a halfway total of 131, a single stroke outside Sir Nick Faldo's record for the halfway mark in a major.
That was about the only record McIlroy failed to smash 12 months ago but more importantly he secured an early maiden major victory; one that can prove the foundation of a glittering career.
This is a view echoed by golf's ultimate record breaker Jack Nicklaus who, with 18 majors to his name, has won more of golf's biggest titles than any other player.
"He's got the monkey off his back right now," Nicklaus recently told CNN's Living Golf. "It's gone, now he can go play golf. He doesn't have to worry about people saying; 'he's a really good player but he's never won.'"
It was Nicklaus who urged McIlroy to make a scouting mission to Olympic Club last week and the defending champion heeded the old master's call.
Nicklaus is convinced more major titles are just around the corner for the current world number two. "The next one will come when it's ready to come," he said.
"And when they do, I'm going to have to start worrying about him, rather than Tiger!" added Nicklaus, who is not prone to unwarranted hyperbole, and looked like he was only half joking.
Thankfully McIlroy has a maturity beyond his years and has more than enough about him to not be carried away by such high praise.
It is rarely easy to adjust to immediate super-stardom but the boy from Holywood, County Down, has so far done so with remarkable success.
In the 22 official tournaments he has played since winning the 2011 US Open he has won twice, had five runner up finishes and four other top fives.
He has not contended in any subsequent majors but it is worth noting that neither did Tiger Woods after winning the Masters in 1997.
Woods was 21 when he enjoyed that breakthrough and in the following year his record was very similar to McIlroy's. He had three wins from 22 official events, two runner-ups and two more top fives.
The American didn't win the second of his 14 majors to date until the 1999 PGA, the 11th he played after claiming that first green jacket.
So regardless of what happens at Olympic Club, McIlroy remains firmly on course for a stellar career.
The rejuvenated Woods, who recently won Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament, appears the better bet this week, especially with the San Francisco weather forecast set fair and the course expected to play fast and firm.
This should also suit world number one Luke Donald, who prospered in similar conditions in winning the BMW PGA at Wentworth, and Lee Westwood, whose accuracy will always make him a danger at US Opens. Both Englishman, though, have still to shed the major-less monkey identified by Nicklaus.
A Woods victory would continue the current trend of American winners on home soil. It has been a remarkable season for Uncle Sam on the PGA Tour.
Hunter Mahan and Jason Duffner - like Woods - have won twice; Bubba Watson claimed the Masters and Matt Kuchar won the Players' Championship.
But the same can't be said in the team environment and it would be remiss not to mention Great Britain and Ireland's stunning Curtis Cup victory at Nairn last Sunday.
It means, for the first time, all four transatlantic trophies sit proudly on this side of the pond and the fact that the Curtis Cup can rest alongside the Ryder, Solheim and Walker Cups is a fantastic achievement for the amateur women of Britain and Ireland.
The famous US Open trophy has lived in Northern Ireland for the past two years, with McIlroy succeeding Graeme McDowell as America's national champion.
Whether it remains in European hands is the most intriguing question posed by this week's second major of the year.