“They put everything into him,” Bannon says. “Gerry was a hard worker; he did a few jobs in the old days.”
The McIlroys had no doubt it would be worth it, their son was so clearly a gifted prodigy from the outset. At 8, he was the youngest member of the Holywood Club. At 9, he won a world championship for his age group at Doral in Florida. By 11, he shot even par at Holywood, and at 15 he played his first pro event in the 2005 British Masters. At 16 he showed what he was fully capable of, when he obliterated the scoring record with a 61 at Royal Portrush, considered one of the most demanding courses in the world, a jagged layout along the dunes of the Irish Sea. That performance is why no one in Northern Ireland is at all surprised with the size of his U.S. Open lead. Record after record has fallen as he has matured into a professional.
McIlroy’s ball-striking in the Open has been so superb and so overpowering that he has earned comparisons with Tiger Woods, who is chasing Nicklaus for the title of greatest player ever. Although he is just 5 feet 9 and 161 pounds, he has driven the ball a whopping average of 312 yards. He’s done it with a level head and an even-tempo.
“It’s funny to me, you know, it feels quite simple,” he says.
But the combination of strength and precision has overwhelmed the field, not to mention been beautiful to watch. By the time he reached the second tee Saturday, the huge galleries that followed him were loudly chanting, “Let’s go, Ro-ry!”
“Yeah, it was incredible; the support that our group got out there was fantastic,” McIlroy said afterward. “It’s nice when you get nearly a standing ovation on every green you walk up onto. Hopefully I can just give them something else to cheer about tomorrow.”
Only one thing remains for McIlroy to prove: that he can fulfill his talent by finishing in one of golf’s four annual major championships. It’s the last challenge but it’s also the most difficult one.
After being told that other professionals were comparing him to Woods and that Padraig Harrington went so far as to say that McIlroy — not Woods — would be the one to break Nicklaus’s majors record, McIlroy laughed
“Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” he said. “You know, I’m still looking for my first one. That’s all I can say. I’m looking for my first one. I’ve put myself in a great position to do that tomorrow, and then we’ll see what happens from there.”
In his previous experiences with a lead, nerves got him and his swing got too fast. Last year he shot a 63 in the first round of the British Open at St. Andrews, tying the record for the lowest-ever in a major, but followed it with an 80. In his Masters debacle, he came so undone he hit a ball out of bounds. But McIlroy impressed all observers with his class in congratulating the winner Charl Schwartzel, and in admitting his weakness.
In the wake of the Masters he went to play in Nicklaus’s tournament, the Memorial, in Dublin, Ohio, and after a charity clinic he sat down with history’s greatest golfer for a brief counseling session. The two had gotten to know each other better during a 2010 tournament in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., over a long lunch, when McIlroy spent an hour and a half quizzing Nicklaus on his methods for practicing, preparing and closing out tournaments.
“He was worried that he couldn’t finish, couldn’t win,” Nicklaus said in an e-mail interview. “I said not to worry about it. Instead of shooting 36 or 37 the last nine holes, one day you’ll shoot 32 or 33 and win. It’ll just happen. Keep playing; keep your nose to the grindstone. You don’t have to try to push something to happen.”
After the Masters collapse, Nicklaus reiterated his message. He kidded McIlroy that he would whack him if he gave away another major; then, he reassured him.
Next, Nicklaus gave him a few words on the subject of pressure.
“Pressure is what you live for,” he said. “You want to have pressure on you. You don’t want to come down to the last hole needing to make par to finish 20th. You want to come down to the last hole with pressure on you to win. Everyone is going to put pressure on you. That’s going to happen in life. If you are going to be successful, you’re going to have pressure.”
It appears that he has dealt with it. McIlroy’s 68 in the third round was all about solid golf under pressure. It gave him a lead of eight strokes, the second-greatest margin ever in a U.S. Open, behind only Woods, who led the 2000 Open by 10 strokes.
Eighteen more holes stand between McIlroy and his first major victory — that crucial one that seems sure to lead to so many others.