BETHESDA, Md. – With each remarkable round, with each record-setting performance, Rory McIlroy is making that Masters debacle seem like a distant memory.
A U.S. Open title could erase it altogether.
McIlroy moved closer to his first major Saturday at Congressional by stretching his lead for the third straight day with a 3-under 68 to set the 54-hole record at the U.S. Open – a mind-boggling 14-under 199 – and build an eight-shot lead going into the final round.
That’s twice the size of his lead going into the last day at Augusta National.
And this time, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman says he has learned from his mistakes.
“At Augusta, it was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with the lead,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to be defensive, aggressive, go for it, not go for it. But now, I know what I need to do, which is a great thing to have. I have a clear mind going out there tomorrow, and I just need to stick to my game plan.”
This time, history is on his side.
No one has ever blown more than a five-shot lead at the U.S. Open. No has ever lost any major when leading by more than six shots going into the final round. And over three days on a rain-softened course, no one looks to be close to McIlroy.
“It’s just phenomenal,” defending champion Graeme McDowell said. “You run out of superlatives to describe what he’s doing this week. He’s decimating a field.”
For those curious whether he would crumble, as McIlroy did in the final round at the Masters when he lost a four-stroke lead and shot 80, he answered with a combination of smart play early and aggressive shots when he found his rhythm.
His only bogey came from a shot that was about 5 feet too long and tumbled into a back bunker on the par-3 10th. On the next hole, facing one of the most daunting shots on the course from deep rough, he hit a 7-iron that covered the flag and settled 18 feet away. McIlroy pumped his fist when he made the birdie putt. It was a knockout punch to everyone else.
When he walked off the 18th green with a par, he was eight shots clear of Y.E. Yang and one round away from his first major.
“I wanted to catch up a little bit,” Yang said. “But at the same time, the player with the better shot, with the better putt, with the better composure is leading right now. So I have no regrets. Right now, the better player is leading.
“I think it’s actually a race for second place right now.”
His performance has been so inspiring that comparisons to Tiger Woods’ record-setting romp at Pebble Beach in 2000 gave way to questions whether McIlroy ultimately would be the one to challenge Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors.
“What is he, 22 years old? If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,” fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington said. “Winning majors at 22 with his talent, he would have 20 more years … where he could be competitive. It would give him a great chance.”
McIlroy, perhaps still wary of what happened at Augusta, is not ready to celebrate.
“Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” he said quietly as he shook his head and smiled. “I’m still 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. It’s nice to have all these complimentary things said about you, but until you actually do these things, they don’t mean anything.”
With more rain overnight and cloud cover through the third round, scores resembled a regular PGA Tour event instead of a major championship designed to be the toughest exam golf has to offer.
There were 26 rounds under par, the most ever for the third round of a U.S. Open.
Lee Westwood and Jason Day provided the early challenge – if it could even be called that – with rounds of 65. Webb Simpson, who narrowly made the cut, was among the first out and shot 66.
“It’s not a true U.S. Open test out there, to be honest,” McDowell said. “There were some tough pins out there, no doubt. I’d like to see it tougher than it was. That’s the weather – you can’t control that. Take nothing away from him. Rory is doing a phenomenal job out there.”
Woods was the only player under par when he built his 10-shot lead at Pebble Beach. There were 20 players under par through three rounds at Congressional. But soft conditions tend to make it easier on everyone, and McIlroy has been the best all week in any condition.
The USGA made no apologies for the low scores, attributing that to the weather – and to McIlroy, the star of this U.S. Open.
“If he wasn’t in the field, we’d be talking about a pretty tight U.S. Open,” said Jeff Hall, part of the team setting up the golf course. “Rory is just obviously playing at a level that’s a bit above everybody else this week. There certainly are a number of birdies being made, but some folks are not finding it quite as easy as others.”
About the only drama Saturday, even after McIlroy reached 14-under par, was whether he also would break Woods’ record 10-shot lead through 54 holes at a U.S. Open. McIlroy had a nine-shot lead, but failed to birdie the par-5 16th and Yang added two late birdies.
Yang wound up with 70 and will be in the last group with McIlroy again. Westwood, Day and Robert Garrigus (68) were at 5-under 208.
“It definitely wasn’t as easy as it was the first couple of days,” McIlroy said. “I knew that I was going to feel a little bit of pressure and a little bit of nerves, and it took me a few holes to get into the round.”
If there was a turning point, it might have come on the third hole.
McIlroy pushed his tee shot into the rough, and a tree blocked a clear shot at the green. Studying his options with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald, McIlroy pointed to a gap, then backed off and reached for a wedge to pitch back into the fairway. His third shot stopped 3 feet from the cup for a par, and he was on his way.
“That gave me a little bit of momentum,” McIlroy said. “I sort of found my rhythm quite quickly after that.”
Day played the opening three rounds with McIlroy at the Masters, and knew what he was capable of doing. The Australian still gave it his best shot, shooting a 32 on the tougher back nine, finishing with a rare birdie on the 18th.
All that, and he was still nine shots behind.
“The way he’s playing out there, it’s almost Tigeresque,” Day said. “It’s unbelievable how good he’s playing. Obviously, to have the lead that he has in the U.S. Open is pretty ridiculous, and at such a young age. The next generation is starting to kick up now, and he’s the guy that’s leading it.”
Westwood, considered the best player without a major, wasn’t ready to concede even as McIlroy was passing his first big test.
“He had a big lead in a major and didn’t deal with it before,” Westwood said. “There’s pressure on him with regards to that. So we’ll see. All I can do is control my game and try and shoot as low a score as possible for me.”