There are lots of posts in the golf blogosphere lately speculating on whether Rory McIlroy will be able to successfully “defend” his US Open Title.
I find the phrasing of the question curious. Entirely different course. Entirely different conditions. Different grass. Different winds. Different coast. It’s not so much a “defense” as a “repeat.” McIlroy’s ability to win on the rain softened Emmett/Ross/Jones designed and redesigned Congressional has in my mind no bearing on his ability to win on Wilfried Reid’s Olympic Blue.
In McIlroy’s particular case, you can’t even make the argument that his previous win has created “momentum” for this one.
Winning the US Open in consecutive years has got to be one of the most difficult things to do in golf—if not in all of sports. Only six men have accomplished the feat over the course of 116 years, and only two of them (Hogan and Strange) happened after WWII. Here’s the short list:
Willie Anderson (1903, 1904, 1905)
John McDermott (1911, 1912)
Bobby Jones (1929, 1930)
Ralph Guldahl (1937, 1938)
Ben Hogan (1950, 1951)
Curtis Strange (1988, 1989)
A couple of things make the feat so difficult. First and foremost is the variety of courses used by the USGA for its championship. The last time the US Open was at Olympic was 1998. Rory McIlroy was not yet born then. There’s no institutional memory upon which he can fall back.
Taking the Tiger era as a base (1995 – present), just four courses have been played twice; Shinnecock Hills, Olympic, Pebble Beach, Pinehurst and Bethpage. The closest a replay of a course has come is six years. A lot can change in a player’s game in six years, and a return in no way guarantees an advantage. In fact, only Jack Nicklaus has won twice on the same course (Baltusrol).
The second difficulty in repeating lies in the size and relative competitiveness of the fields. In major team sports, there are perhaps just 28 to 32 teams, and of those, perhaps a quarter are competitive on a year-in-year-out basis. On the PGA Tour this year, there have been twenty different winners.
Finally, there’s the USGA itself. I think their tinkering with the course setups really reduces a players’ chances of a repeat.
Will McIlroy win again this year? History is against it.