“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.”