Irishman McIlroy intends to defend U.S. Open title, hasn’t yet played at Olympic

Life has certainly changed in the past 12 months for Rory McIlroy.

A year ago, the laid-back, 22-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland was under heavy scrutiny after a meltdown in the final round of the Masters left questions of how he could handle the pressure of contending for a major championship.

McIlroy answered in emphatic, record-setting fashion by demolishing the field at Congressional Country Club to win the U.S. Open just two months later, his first career major.

Now, with the 2012 U.S. Open — which runs June 14-17 at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course — rapidly approaching, he’s bringing a newfound confidence into his preparation.

“If anything, it just gives me more confidence in myself knowing that I can win on the biggest stage in golf, and knowing that I’ve done it before, that will give me confidence to think that I’ll be able to do it again,” McIlroy said via teleconference during a media day event Monday at the Olympic Club.

If McIlroy were to be able to navigate the narrow, tree-lined fairways and gnarly rough of the Olympic Club for a second straight Open crown, he would be the first to do so since Curtis Strange rattled off back-to-back Open titles in 1988 and ’89.

“It’s the toughest test that we face all year and I’m not sure why there hasn’t been a repeat champion [since Strange], but obviously I’m going to try my hardest to make that happen this year,” said McIlroy, who is playing in the Wells Fargo Championship in North Carolina this week.

One obstacle the rising star will have to tackle will be his familiarity, or more appropriately, lack of familiarity with the Olympic Club.

McIlroy said Monday he’s never played the course before, but will come up a week prior to become acquainted with the layout.

The USGA will certainly have plenty of tricks up its sleeve for McIlrory and the rest of the 156-player field, including a variety of new tee boxes from the last time the Open was held at Olympic in 1998, shaved areas surrounding greens and plenty of graduated rough that has become synonymous with the event in recent years.

“I think that if the weather permits this year in San Francisco,” McIlroy said, “we’ll get the golf course firm and fast, and it will be tricky.”

NOTES: The USGA announced Monday that 97 percent of tickets for the U.S. Open are sold out. All grounds tickets for Friday-Sunday (June 15-17) have been swallowed up. Some limited tickets still remain. The USGA is expecting a sellout for the 26th straight year. For ticket info, visit … The USGA’s first film produced for television, “1962 U.S. Open: Jack’s First Major,” will make its U.S. debut on June 17 at 11 a.m. on NBC prior to the final round of the U.S. Open. The film chronicles Jack Nicklaus’ first major victory and the start of his rivalry against Arnold Palmer. … Local qualifying for the U.S. Open kicked off this week and will run through May 17. Sectional qualifying takes place June 4, with Lake Merced to act as one host site.

The bigger the better

  • 33,500 Daily spectators expected for 2012 U.S. Open
  • 220,000 Approximate expected total attendance for the week
  • 14,000 Grandstand seats expected for U.S. Open
  • 45,000 Total people expected to be on grounds daily (includes spectators, media, vendors and volunteers)
  • 5,300 Approximate number of daily volunteers for U.S. Open
  • $140 million-$170 million Expected economic impact for area
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