UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. (AP) Rory McIlroy didn't fare so well the last time he played links golf. He shot an 80 at Royal County Down in the Irish Open, missed his second straight cut, returned to his home in Florida and spent four days of practice to get back to his style of golf.
Long. High. Powerful.
And that's what he thinks will help him the most at Chambers Bay, a course he describes as ''pure links.''
It's all a bit confusing, which is perfect for a U.S. Open that has rarely been such a mystery to so many players. McIlroy wasn't sure what to expect when he arrived on the weekend and was charmed by the look of the course off Puget Sound.
''I think it sets up well for my game,'' he said. ''You've got to be aggressive off the tee. You've got to hit driver. I think it's a course where you're going to see a lot of guys hit fairways and hit greens.
''But when you hit greens, you can still be 50, 60 feet away from the pin. So if you can drive the ball well and your pace putting and long putting is sharp, I think they're going to be two really key things this week to be successful.''
One aspect of McIlroy needs no explanation.
He might not have a green jacket from the Masters. He missed his first shot at the career Grand Slam two months ago. But there is little doubt who is the best player in golf, even though he is only a slight favorite at the U.S. Open ahead of Masters champion and world No. 2 Jordan Spieth.
Never mind that McIlroy is coming off back-to-back missed cuts on the European Tour. He writes that off on fatigue in the mind more than the body, especially because it ended five straight tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic.
Besides, he won two of the other tournaments in that stretch, the Match Play Championship and the Wells Fargo Championship.
''I didn't obviously want to miss those two cuts in Europe,'' he said. ''But I think that's just the way I'm going to be. I'd rather, in a six-tournament period, have three wins and three missed cuts than six top 10s. Volatility in golf is actually a good thing. If your good weeks are really good, it far outweighs the bad weeks.''
He wouldn't mind a good week at Chambers Bay.
McIlroy won the last major on a real links - Royal Liverpool, which was softened by rain on the weekend. He finished the year with another major at the PGA Championship, joining Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods as the only players with four majors at age 25 or younger.
Chambers Bay is a chance to add to that total and offer a reminder.
Spieth went wire-to-wire in a dominant win at the Masters. Rickie Fowler showed remarkable resolve and delivered the most exciting finish of the year when he went eagle-birdie-birdie and won The Players Championship a month later.
Golf isn't looking for a new No. 1. It's looking for a rival for McIlroy.
''He's the guy out front,'' Fowler said. ''There's a lot of times where you see him up on the board and in a way expect him to be there. But we're ready to go to battle and go toe-to-toe. And personally, I want to see him play well and I want to go up against him when he is playing well to go have some fun and see who comes out on top.''
But the list of challengers could be growing, and with no one really having a full grasp of Chambers Bay, there are conflicting thoughts on what it will take and even whether the golf course will allow the best players to separate themselves from the field.
''It's a fact that these days the young guys, they win and compete more than the guys in their late 30s or 40s,'' defending champion Martin Kaymer said. ''What Rory has done the last three or four years is obviously outstanding. It's very, very special. The great thing right now is when you win a big tournament, I think you can be very, very proud of yourself because right now it's very hard to win one. There are so many guys that can win a golf tournament.''
Spieth played the front nine early with Woods. There is a mixture of players trying to cram in as much information, and yet at the same time conserving energy for what figures to be a long walk - more than 8 miles from the first tee to the 18th green - across severe changes in elevation.
McIlroy decided to play later than usual on Tuesday to test the conditions of late afternoon at Chambers Bay. An overcast sky in the morning gave way to more sunshine, and the course is getting faster and firmer.
''I'm hoping I'm off pretty late at the weekend,'' he said. ''I want to see how the course plays at that point.''
He is not lacking for confidence, nor should he. Never mind the consecutive missed cuts. Remember, he missed back-to-back cuts before his first PGA Tour win at Quail Hollow in 2010. He missed four cuts in five tournaments in 2012 before ending the year with a PGA Championship title and two FedEx Cup playoff wins.
And he's still No. 1, the guy everyone is chasing.
''If you look back at the last four or five years, I guess I've won more majors than anyone else in that time period,'' he said. ''So do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes. And obviously, I want to go out every week and try to back that up and show that.''