Tiger v. Rory – Who is Favourite for the US Open?

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are the two biggest draws in golf without a shadow of a doubt. But until two weeks ago, it was looking as though they would be nothing more than bystanders at this week’s US Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Until last week, Woods hadn’t finished better than a tie for 40th since his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, looking decidedly out of sorts. Similarly, McIlroy has missed three consecutive cuts for the first time in his professional career, declaring after missing the cut at the BMW PGA Championship he hadn’t been practicing as hard as he should have been.

But the mark of a champion is to rally when there is something at stake; whether it be a defence of your reputation or the desire to defend a major championship. Woods stormed to victory at the Memorial Tournament last week, hitting the second best chip shot of his life at the 16th hole at Muirfield Village (the parallels between that chip and his chip on the 16th in the 2005 Masters are uncanny) for a birdie before another at the closing hole. McIlroy added the FedEx St Jude Classic to his schedule after missing the cut at the Memorial, narrowly missing out on victory in Memphis. With both players coming into form at just the right time, it seems as if a duel between the pair is inevitable in San Francisco. The question is, however, should such a scenario arise, who would come out on top?

Form

Three sloppy weeks aside, McIlroy is still one of the form players in world golf. His three missed cuts probably have more to do with a lack of dedication than any discernible dip in form. Encouragingly, McIlroy spoke with a maturity after the BMW Championship and, given his change in schedule, it seems as if he has re-dedicated himself to the cause. Many have read far too deeply into McIlroy’s three missed cuts, and his performance at the Fed-Ex suggests he is ready to stage a defence of the title he won so memorably 12 months ago.

Woods has been so heavily scrutinised purely because of his past, rather than on merit. He has had five top 25s, three top 10s, a second place finish and two victories this season. Only one player in world golf (Branden Grace) has won more times than Woods in 2012. His form is good; it just seems average when compared to what he used to be. It is fairly level pegging between the two in the form stakes, but I think the decisive factor could be attitude, temperament and desire.

Attitude and Temprament

It is hard to see past Woods should things come down to a head-to-head battle. McIlroy is serene on the golf course, and relies on immense skill rather than the ability to grind out a score. Last year, when everything clicked into place, McIlroy was unstoppable, strolling to victory. This year, however, things will be much tighter. McIlroy showed at the 2011 Masters he struggles with the major championship pressure that wasn’t really exuded at Congressional 12 months ago, whereas Woods thrives in such circumstances.

Woods is a real fighter, with a hunger and desire that is surpassed by no one. When he has a sniff of victory, everyone in the field knows, and everyone in the field is wary. I suspect if it comes down to a head to head battle between the two, or if Woods was two back of McIlroy with 18 holes to play, the former would prevail. Woods has a real stomach for a fight and winning ingrained in his psyche; he just seems to care that little bit more than everyone else. There hasn’t really been a head to head battle between the two, and should such a situation rise, it is hard to see past Woods. Granted, McIlroy could prove me wrong, but you suspect a determined Woods, with a desire to prove to the world that he is still the best golfer on the planet, would simply not be beaten.

Long Game and Putting

As previously mentioned, I think mental factors will be more important this week than technical ability, but on a course where driving will be crucial, Woods holds the advantage. He is currently 30th on the PGA Tour in driving distance and 24th in driving accuracy, combining to give him the number one ranking in total driving. By contrast, McIlroy is 25th in total driving and – on a course where playing approach shots from the fairway will be extremely important – 113th in driving accuracy. No one wins a major championship without having a good week on the greens, and Woods is again favourite in this category. Despite having a relatively poor season (by his standards) with the putter, he is 23rd in strokes gained: putting, whereas McIlroy is 53rd.

It almost every sphere, it is hard to see past Tiger Woods being beaten by Rory McIlroy (whether it be for the title or general position). Both players have come into form of late, but Woods dominates the statistics and, more significantly, really seems to have the bit between his teeth after his Memorial victory. Should the tournament turn into a battle between the two biggest names in the game, expect the biggest to triumph.

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