ARDMORE, Pa. -- Come Thursday for the start of the 113th U.S. Open, most eyes at Merion will be on Tiger Woods, who has won four tournaments in 2013.
But it wasn't too long ago that many of us were arguing that the 14-time major champion had lost his place at the top of the game to Rory McIlroy.
Lately McIlroy has been anything but one of the top players in the game. The 2011 U.S. Open champion, who was masterful that year on a defenseless Congressional course, has been distracted since his win in August at the PGA by equipment and management changes and the intense pressure of being No. 1 in the world.
On Thursday afternoon, McIlroy will play with Tiger and Adam Scott, the reigning Masters champion. It will be the marquee group of the first two rounds on a Merion East course that has been saturated by rain over the past several days.
"It's always nice to be a part of a group like that," McIlroy said. "There's a lot of buzz and a lot of atmosphere around it, and it gets you focused from the first shot."
McIlroy says he plans to be aggressive off the tee by hitting seven drivers.
This is in contrast to several players, including Tiger, who said they planned to hit more irons off the tee.
What could this approach do for McIlroy's chances at Merion?
In 2011, McIlroy treated the very benign Congressional layout as though it were a regular tour event. His 16-under-par total set a tournament record. It's easy to give Open venues too much respect, causing players to act tentatively when a more aggressive approach is warranted.
With the wet conditions, the Merion East course may be susceptible to birdies, but as several of the players have noted, it's a track with some of the most challenging holes in major championship golf.
McIlroy was not very fond of the Olympic Club, where he shot 77-73 to miss the cut in his title defense.
"I much prefer this sort of golf," he said. "When you hit a shot and it doesn't bounce one way or the other, when you hit it and it stays where you think it's going to stay.
"I expect the scores to be a little lower than what they would be if the course was a little firmer and drier, but I don't think you'll see the scores like the scores that were shot at Congressional."
McIlroy's game is in much better shape now than it was at this time last year, when he had missed three cuts in a row coming into the Open. He's had three top-10s in his past five events on tour.
"This year I feel like my game's actually in good shape," McIlroy said. "But it's nice to come in under the radar but be able to do your own thing and be able to get on with your business and prepare the way you want to for this tournament."