Say, for a moment, Augusta had never happened. Rory McIlroy has inserted Congressional Country Club into his own personal paper shredder this week, so this U.S. Open should be all about his glorious golf game and club-twirling countenance. Without the Masters, he would be en route to a Sunday in which he would inevitably be hailed as his sport’s next great star, because his swing is gorgeous, his game complete, his personality endearing.
But even with the 3-under-par 68 McIlroy shot Saturday — the round that got him to an unprecedented 14 under for the tournament, with a new three-round record total of 199 — there is the specter of the Masters, and at least for the ensuing 24 hours, it is inescapable. McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, is a presumed major champion, multiple times over. But in order to fulfill that promise, he must win his first. Then the stigma of Augusta National, where his final-round 80 turned a four-shot advantage into a 10-shot loss, will be expunged.
“From the experience that I had at Augusta, I know how to approach tomorrow,” McIlroy said. “I know what I need to do.”
He hasn’t yet done it. That is, perhaps, the only aspect of Saturday’s play that gives the rest of a field — flogged into near-oblivion by McIlroy all week — even the slightest smidgen of hope.
“You don’t know how Rory is going to do,” said Lee Westwood of England, the world’s second-ranked player, who sits nine behind. “You don’t know how he’s going to deal with the big lead. He had a big lead in a major and didn’t deal with it well before. There’s pressure on him with regards to that. So we’ll see.”
A crass, yet truthful, assessment. So before we get to how McIlroy assembled his savvy round Saturday, when he enhanced his lead to eight shots over South Korea’s Y.E. Yang, there is some gruesome preamble to Sunday. The largest 54-hole lead ever blown at the Open was held by Mike Brady, a five-shot advantage over Walter Hagen in 1919. Brady shot 80, Hagen 75 to tie, and Hagen won in a playoff. In 1986, Greg Norman led by six shots after three rounds of the Masters and unforgettably imploded, losing to Nick Faldo, the largest collapse in major championship history.
These are not the lists McIlroy wants any part of. Instead, nestle him right into the group of largest 54-hole leads in the 111 U.S. Opens thus far. Tiger Woods’s 10-shot advantage in 2000 at Pebble Beach en route to his unprecedented 15-shot win is the widest margin. Previously, the next-best was James Barnes’s seven-shot bulge in 1921 at Columbia Country Club, right down the road in Chevy Chase. McIlroy now fits neatly between the two. His three-round total beat out Jim Furyk’s 200, set in 2003 at Olympia Fields.
“Right now,” Yang said through an interpreter, “the better player is leading.”
To get to that point, McIlroy took a bit of a different approach than he had at the Masters.
“What I did today, I tried to set myself a little target, little goals,” he said. He wanted to get to 15 under for the tournament, and fell a shot short. Other than that, he broke off the round in chunks — play three holes in 1 under, for instance, “just little triggers that make you less worried about the result and more focused on what you’re actually doing.”
The enormity of that, McIlroy knows, could be overwhelming. His round unfolded in the swelter of a Washington Saturday in June, and the galleries at times seemed perplexed by how to react. On one hand, they were watching one of the world’s best players execute his plan as he wanted it: Not losing his aggression, but not being an idiot about it, either. The problem: that left few moments, early on, to either explode or groan.
McIlroy made two key saves on the front side, when his nerves still jangled. Given one chance to make a poor decision — when he hit his drive at the third well right of the fairway, and considered hitting a cut under a limb not 20 paces in front of him — he chose the smart play. He took a wedge and punched the ball to the center of the fairway, then stuck a sand wedge from 90 yards to two feet — the kind of par that can sustain a championship run rather than a disaster that could derail it. At the fourth, he nearly holed his shot from a greenside bunker. Given the chance to collapse, he didn’t.
“A par can mean more than a birdie,” he said, and with that, he went on to his first birdie of the day at 5.
The cheers, though, came with two swings. At the par-5 ninth — playing shorter Saturday, at 564 yards — he ripped a 4-iron from 224 yards out to 25 feet above the hole, giving him a look at eagle. His foot was squarely on the accelerator. He scored over par for just the second time in the tournament thus far — think about that for a minute — at No. 10, then faced the menacing 11th, a par 4 that played at 496 yards Saturday.
There, McIlroy was still charging. He hit his tee shot into the left rough, perhaps four inches deep, but found a fortuitous lie. He then laced his approach 188 yards uphill with a 7-iron. It settled perhaps 20 feet above the hole. Where bogey might have been expected, he made birdie.
“When you birdie that,” McIlroy said, “you feel as if you’re picking up a shot-and-a-half on the field.”
A shot-and-a-half? He has eight full shots on the field. So what’s left to do but wonder: Can he close this out?
“He’s managed to lead after 18 holes, 36 holes and 54 holes — and 63 holes,” Irishman Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion, said of McIlroy in majors. “So all now he has to do is get another nine holes, and it looks like this will be the one.”
If it is, he will have the elusive first major. Woods thrust himself into prominence by taking the 1997 Masters, and he has made it his charge to overtake Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. With 18 holes to play before his first, there are some who already believe there’s another contender.
“If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,” Harrington said. “Winning majors at 22, with his talent? He would have 20 more years, so probably 100 more majors in him where he would be competitive. It would give him a great chance.”
McIlroy’s assessment of such: “Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” and he looked down, shaking his head.
But what if Augusta had never happened? There would be no doubt about what’s up next: a crowning of a new champion, with endless possibilities ahead of him.
“I’m still looking for my first one,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”