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A soft Pebble Beach plays right into Rory's hands

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – This wasn’t exactly what Rory McIlroy envisioned two weeks ago, when he said he pined for the days when the U.S. Open was a straightforward grind with tight fairways, thick rough and fast greens.

Although there’s plenty of thick rough and an abundance of spots where good rounds go to die this week at Pebble Beach, two days of heavy fog — think it’s called June Gloom in these parts — have given way to the softer side of the U.S. Open.

And McIlroy is fine with that.

“It's a very soft start to a U.S. Open, which is a good thing, because you're completely in control of the golf course,” the Northern Irishman said following an opening 68 that left him just two strokes off the early pace.

For McIlroy, who is now almost five years removed from his last major victory, it was the perfect start in perfect conditions.

Following what he called a “smelly” bogey on No. 10 to begin his day, he made the turn in 1 under par and took advantage of the easier loop, with birdies at Nos. 2 and 3.  But as is the case at nearly every U.S. Open, it was more about avoiding bogeys than it was about making birdies.

He appeared on his way to dropping a shot at the par-3 fifth hole, when fluffed a chip just a few feet in front of him, but managed to save his par with a 15-foot putt from off the green. He made another momentum-saving par at No. 6 after finding the rough off the tee, and poured in a “double breaking” 7-footer to save a shot at No. 8.

With Pebble not yet its fiery self, this was exactly the kind of round you would expect from a former U.S. Open champion and a player who is fresh off a seven-stroke victory last week at the RBC Canadian Open.

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At last month’s Memorial, McIlroy explained that when it comes to player criticism of the U.S. Open, it's not about making the challenge any easier. Per Rory, Tour pros want something closer to what they grew up watching, and Thursday’s early reviews suggest this week’s setup is a step in the right direction.

“The fairways are very slow. The greens are quite soft still. But in terms of the setup, there's some generous fairway here. There's generous targets out there still,” he said. “But all this golf course needs is just a little tweak here and there, and it can play a lot more difficult.”

It’s a setup worth savoring for McIlory, who won the 2011 U.S. Open on a soft and spongy Congressional layout. It's also a reason to be optimistic; Thursday marked his first opening round in the 60s at a U.S. Open since Congressional.

For all of McIlroy’s stellar play this season — 10 top-10 finishes and two victories in 13 starts — it’s been impossible for him to avoid the major elephant in the room. After winning four majors from 2011-2014, he’s only occasionally threatened to add a fifth, and players of McIlroy’s ilk are, fairly or not, judged by their performances in the game’s biggest events.

That he’s back in the hunt on a venue that seems perfectly suited to his unique brand of power golf is even more reason to envision another magical Sunday. It was, after all, the ’11 championship that set him on his path to become a major force.

“I remember when he looked at the U.S. Open trophy I had. You could see it in his face; It really meant a lot to him,” said Graeme McDowell, who won the last U.S. Open played at Pebble Beach in 2010.

McIlroy’s return to winning form this season has been accompanied by an almost religious adherence to his process. Earlier this season, as the close calls piled up, he never showed the slightest sign of impatience. 

Whether that road leads to his second U.S. Open title remains to be seen, but a fast start on a soft Pebble Beach is all he could have asked for.