Olympic challenge comes early as world’s top three join forces

Only a month to go before the athletes of the world gather in London, but in golf the Olympic action starts today.

Rory McIlroy defends his US Open title at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and does not have to look far for two of the biggest threats to his crown.

Northern Ireland’s world No 2 plays the opening two rounds with No 1 Luke Donald and third-ranked Lee Westwood.

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“I like it. I think it really adds to the atmosphere,” said McIlroy, who after a troublesome build-up – three successive missed cuts prior to last week’s seventh place in Memphis – plans a far more attacking approach than he thought likely on a course where not a single player broke par on its last staging of the event in 1998.

By the time Europe’s ‘Big Three’ tee off just before 1.30pm, however, many of the sell-out crowd will have seen what they came for.

“I certainly don’t think it’s the most recognisable group – we all know who that is,” said Donald.

He was referring to the latest head-to-head clash between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, given even more fan appeal by the fact that Masters champion Bubba Watson will be alongside them.

That star-studded trio begin their bids just after 7.30am and, given the accepted difficulty of the opening six-hole stretch, they will not mind in the least that they, like half the field, start on the 449-yard ninth.

McIlroy, Donald and Westwood do not have that chance to ease their way – relatively speaking – into the championship. They tee off with the 520-yard first, the third longest par four in US Open history.

The course also includes the longest par five in major history, the 670-yard 16th. Or, as Steve Stricker thinks of it, the ‘par six’ 16th.

“It’s a tough track,” added Donald, once again hoping this might be the week he ends his wait for a major.

“It challenges every part of your game from the first tee shot to when you walk off 18. It’s a grind.

“Even the easy holes, there’s always trouble lurking – and you’ve just got to play solid golf.

“Out of all the major championships this is the toughest test in a way. Just because it’s set up that way. Most of the time par is a good score.”

The 34-year-old has won the last two BMW PGA Championships over a Wentworth examination that is a much sterner test than it used to be.

His confidence should also be boosted by the need to play a lot of left-to-right shots – a fade for him, a draw for left-handers Mickelson and Watson.

“I feel like it suits my eye reasonably well. Certainly the guy that can control the fade around this course is going to have a slight advantage,” he said.

“I feel more comfortable and more in control if I’m hitting a slight fade.”

Despite all the European success in majors over recent years – three for Padraig Harrington, the US PGA victory by Martin Kaymer, back-to-back US Opens for Graeme McDowell and McIlroy and last year’s Open triumph by their compatriot Darren Clarke – the last English success remains Nick Faldo in the 1996 Masters.

Westwood, now 39, was seventh on this course 14 years ago and in the last four seasons has had two seconds and five thirds, most recently at the Masters in April.

In all major history only Harry Cooper – ‘Lighthorse Harry’ as he was known – has had as many top threes without winning. They came between 1925 and 1938.

Westwood arrives fresh – maybe not quite the right word given the jet-lag – from a five-stroke win in Sweden on Saturday.

He declares himself “fairly confident”, but as his search for a major reaches attempt No 57 he said rather wearily: “Maybe I’ll never win one, maybe I will. I could.

“I’ve got no answer to that. Keep working hard and trying to get myself into the position. If it happens it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

The par five 16th – three yards longer than Oakmont’s 12th hole was five years ago – has not impressed Mickelson.

“I believe you play 15 holes of really tough golf and you finally get your first par five – and it’s the toughest hole on the course,” said Mickelson in his press conference. Then he later added to a smaller band of reporters: “And maybe the worst.

“I think great holes provide different strategy and different options. With the tee back on 16 it eliminates any options.

“I would never say it’s unfair. I just wouldn’t say it’s a good hole. It’s a case where longer is not better.”

Masters champion Watson, arguably the longest player in the field, hit two drivers and came up 60 yards short.