The whole golf world has gotten ahead of itself by 24 hours. The sight is beyond scary. After his 68 on Saturday to reach 14 under par and take an eight-shot lead in the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy was anointed. As what? Don’t know. But apparently only the 22-year-old himself has salvaged an iota of sanity in the whole crazy mob at “Lets Go Ro-ry” Congressional Country Club. He owns the place. The Open crown? Not yet.
“Until you do these things, they don’t mean anything,” McIlroy said.
Others, however, are delighted to lose their minds. After all, it’s not themselves they put at risk. It’s just the gifted kid they claim to adore.
“Rory has the potential to be the next Tiger Woods,” said reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, his countryman from Northern Ireland.
Padraig Harrington, a multiple major championship winner, said that McIlroy could break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships.
“Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” said McIlroy, dismayed, putting his hands over his head and forcing his hat down over his brow when he heard those tempt-fate words.
Perhaps Mr. Harrington can claim he was overserved.
At his post-round news conference, McIlroy obligingly answered the question that is always ducked on Saturday night by veterans, covered with their psychic scars: What would it mean to you to win the U.S. Open? McIlroy talked about his parents’ sacrifices. I wanted to tackle him and stomp the microphone.
“The standing ovations were incredible, fantastic,” McIlroy said. “I just hope I can give them something to cheer about tomorrow.”
The hell with ‘em. Win it for yourself.
The kid is almost certainly going to make it. He’s not the nutty one. But it may not be as easy as all the bandwagon jumpers think. Perhaps they’re so giddy because they didn’t actually follow McIlroy and see how he actually shot his 68; they just saw a score.
They didn’t see his five drives into the rough or the half-dozen 12-to-15-foot birdie putts he missed, making him progressively more annoyed. He could be a dozen shots ahead by now, and he knows it. They didn’t see the three traps that caught him or the up-and-down from 90 yards he made to make to stabilize his round at the third hole.
“The [par] saves at three and four were huge. They changed things immensely,” McIlroy said. “After that, I found my rhythm and played some really good golf.”
Those two pars helped. But the real stabilizing shots came later. At No. 9, a 584-yard par five fronted by a vast gulch, few try to reach the green in two shots. McIlroy hit what observers at the hole called the longest drive of the day at that hole, leaving him a mere 224-yard 4-iron to the green to set up a two-putt birdie. So, 360-yard drive?
Even champions need a break at the right time. McIlroy lit up when he arrived in the deep rough left of the 11th fairway. He’d just bogeyed the 10th hole — his first bogey of the Open. There before him was a miraculously lucky lie in the hay. McIlroy grabbed the chance and scalded a 188-yard 7-iron shot that blanked the flag for a 15-foot birdie.
After that, he rolled to the house hitting one quality shot after another.
So, here’s what we’ve got: Maybe Saturday was McIlroy’s “bad round” at this Open, the one that all champions say they have to survive on one of the four days. Congressional played so easy, with the most rounds under par (26) in any Open third round in history, that 68 actually could be the bad round for a player of McIlroy’s gifts.
If McIlroy’s lead is now so big, and his confidence so bolstered by all the grit he showed Saturday, then Sunday could be one of those glorious sit-back-and-marvel days such as Woods’s win by 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000 or . . . or . . . Secretariat at the Belmont?
On the other hand — don’t you hate that “other hand,” the one that the Black Spot always seems to be in — McIlroy’s game and nerves are showing some cracks, such as those early drives in the rough at Nos. 1, 3, 6, 8 and 11. If that’s the case, then McIlroy is going to have to recapitulate his gumption of Saturday all over again Sunday. He probably can because he sure looked classy doing it in round three. But you might want to watch.
Can he lose? No one has ever squandered more than a six-shot last-round lead in a major. And they’ve been doing this stuff a long time. So, we’re talking maybe 100-to-1 against it. But it’s not off the board. The blow to golf would be significant. The strike at McIlroy’s core isn’t something gentle folk even want to consider.
Many of us remember Greg Norman going from six up to five down to Nick Faldo on Sunday at the Masters. That’s an 11-shot swing in fortunes, not just eight shots. Once a full-blown crash begins, the number of strokes needed to complete the catastrophe is irrelevant. Whatever disaster is required is the one that will arrive. The world felt so awful for Norman that the president of the United States reached out to console him.
The loneliness and cruelty of golf when a player has a big lead and his game and nerves suddenly desert him is the cruelest sort of solitary confinement in sports. You are trapped in the frame of a billion electronic screens around the world, and you’re not allowed to leave the stage or seek a substitute. After McIlroy’s fourth-round 80 two months ago, losing a four-shot third-round lead, you can’t deny the possibility. But that experience actually seems to have allowed McIlroy to look at such miserable experiences with a steady eye. Sometimes, “been there, done that” means never, never, ever wanting to be there again.
Saturday was tough for McIlroy. And Sunday, especially the front nine, when a golf black swan might still be sighted at Congressional, may be rigorous, too. Historic rounds of golf are not born whole, nor are they some kind of inevitability, flowing from the character or talent of the athlete.
Instead, they are created gradually, perilously and often agonizingly over several hours. They come into being before our eyes with key moments of crisis that become pivot points to success or disintegration.
On Saturday, the prize pupil passed one test after another. But one more exam awaits him with even higher stakes. Don’t get so nervous. You only have to watch.