A month out, Open contenders separating from the field

With his runaway win in the Wells Fargo Championship last weekend, Rory McIlroy made it pretty obvious that he’s going to burn down Chambers Bay and have an easy time winning the U.S. Open.

Did you see his distance off the tee? Going 21 under par to win by seven strokes? He’ll turn Chambers Bay back into a gravel pit. Right?

Yes, he’s about as obvious to run off with it as Jordan Spieth was after he thumped the field to win his first green jacket at the Masters, tying Tiger’s tournament record — at 21 years old.

Of course, Rickie Fowler was pretty convincing, too, going 6-under in the last six holes to win The Players Championship a week ago. He took only 11 strokes to cover the final four holes.

So, here we are, a month from the start of the U.S. Open in University Place, and the top contenders seem to be separating from the field.

Which may mean exactly nothing, because nobody’s got a track record at a course like Chambers.

The rough indicators are that it will favor those with length, creativity and imagination, physical fitness, a versatile style, and a quick sense of the kind of shots the course will reward.

They’ve got four more tournaments to polish their game and sort this out: At Colonial, The Byron Nelson, Memorial and St. Jude. (Sorry, sponsors, but we don’t have enough space in the newspapers anymore to credit all the Crowne Plazas and Nationwides sponsoring these things.)

When addressing media at Chambers Bay a few weeks ago, USGA executive director Mike Davis talked how the links style and unique terrain of the course would require knowledge and the vision to use the mounds and swales and backboards to shape shots, and play along the ground as well as in the air.

Davis warned that the player who thinks he can just walk to the first tee with his pin chart is going to have a tough time being competitive.

McIlroy was asked about Davis’ warning. “What’s Mike Davis’ handicap?” McIlroy answered. There was probably more jest than barb in his response.

But there is a reality for all these players: They just can’t break away and fly to Washington for a lot of practice rounds. It’s a long way to Washington for most of these guys who are busy raking in purse money at tournaments every weekend.

McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, has won on links courses, and his distance off the tee will set him up to take giant bites off those dogleg par 4s.

But what if he shows up focusing on trying to prove Davis wrong? That could be a bad mindset to bring to the tournament. And don’t you have to wonder if somebody at the USGA is now making notes on how to set up a few holes to specifically trip up McIlroy?

Golf embraces humility so much that it mandates it every round. It tolerates audacity, and even sometimes rewards it. But you don’t taunt golf. Golf will get you. Even players as extraordinary as McIlroy.

Spieth proved he’s got the game to win majors. And, like McIlroy, he’s got the fitness level to make it through 72 holes of trekking Chambers. He’s played Chambers, and his caddie is from the South Sound and will have a good notebook on the course.

Martin Kaymer is defending Open champ, and he won the PGA at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits (2010) on a course that is said to somewhat resemble Chambers Bay.

But if you keep listening to analysts talk about the demands for creativity, and the ability to imagine the shape of shots, the mind keeps coming back to Phil Mickelson.

He’s 44, and he’s not going to be confused with a decathlete in terms of fitness.

But he’s taken second in the U.S. Open six times without a win.

Golf sometimes likes to come back around and make good on promises long deferred.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440