BETHESDA, Md. — Rory McIlroy went into the final round of the 111th U.S. Open with an eight-stroke lead over Y.E. Yang, turning Sunday's final round into less of a competition than a victory parade. But even his fellow competitors knew it would be more than that, a string of tiny numbers in tiny boxes that in a way would make up the coordinates of golf's future.
Showing that he had indeed learned from his mishaps in the majors, including a final-round 80 at the Masters in April, McIlroy birdied the first hole and cruised from there, carding a 69 for a 16-under total and an eight-shot victory over Jason Day.
"I felt like I got over the Masters pretty quickly, and I kept telling you guys that," McIlroy said at his press conference Sunday evening. "I don't know if you believed me or not."
There's no doubting him now. At 22, McIlroy became the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923. McIlroy is also the fifth straight non-American major-championship winner, and he will move to fourth in the World Ranking. He set a U.S. Open record for most strokes under par — Tiger Woods had the old record at 12 under, set in 2000 at Pebble Beach — and like Woods before him may now head into every future major as the favorite in every sense of the word.
"I think he has probably the most talent I've ever seen from a golfer," said world No. 1 Luke Donald, who was never in contention and fired a 69 to finish five over par.
"This day was inevitable," said Edoardo Molinari, who shot 73 to finish seven over.
Kevin Chappell shot a final-round 66 to join Robert Garrigus (70), Lee Westwood (70) and Y.E. Yang (71) in four-way tie for third place.
There is little argument that McIlroy, who held at least a share of the lead at some point in the last four majors, is now the best in the game, if not No. 1 in the rankings. He is also the top draw, for adults and especially kids. Todd Hamilton, the 2004 British Open champion, was just finishing his eighth hole on his way to a final-round 70 Sunday when his youngest son, age 8, turned and asked his mother, "When can we go see Rory McIlroy?"
Everyone wanted a glimpse of the game's next big thing, a player who stood out from an early age but who may have been too nice, whose maturation had at times been hard to watch.
"He's going to be the first Rory, not the next Tiger," Miguel Angel Jimenez said as he left the club shortly before McIlroy teed off. "Tiger was Tiger. Nicklaus was Nicklaus. Palmer was Palmer. Rory is spontaneous, he's happy with his life, and he's going to rule the game of golf."
McIlroy hit 62 of 72 greens in regulation, which is a record since the USGA has kept track of the statistic, and his 268 total broke the tournament's scoring record by four strokes. With a birdie at the par-5 16th hole he went to 17 under, the lowest any player has ever been at any point at a U.S. Open. He nearly aced the par-3 10th hole.
"Even when I got here last week to do my practice rounds and everything, I felt like this golf course was well suited to me," McIlroy said. "The conditions helped, as well, you know. It was soft. With my high ball flight, I was able to stop it on the greens."
"You can tell Rory has had this type of talent in him for some time now," said Phil Mickelson, who played the first two rounds with the winner and carded a final-round 71 to finish seven over. "To see him putting it together is pretty neat."
Several players made a run Sunday, among them Steve Stricker, who went five under par for his first 10 holes, but they were too far back and McIlroy was too unflappable. He birdied the first hole even after his tee shot found a sand-filled divot, and drained a 10-foot putt for a steadying par at the 204-yard, par-3 second. Although Westwood birdied the first to join Yang at six under, McIlroy was now sitting on an absurd nine-stroke lead. Once he spun a wedge back to within three feet on the par-4 fourth hole and tapped in for yet another birdie to go 10 ahead, it was apparent that this tournament would be more Quail Hollow than Augusta National.
It was at Quail in 2010 that McIlroy fired a final-round 62 to win for the first time on the PGA Tour. Several players hung around to watch the emergence of golf's new young talent, and McIlroy couldn't help but crow to Westwood, "That's how you close out a tournament."
Of course it isn't that simple, as he would soon prove. McIlroy seized the first-round lead at the 2010 British Open only to blow up with a wind-blown 80 the next day. He made a late bogey to miss the playoff at the PGA Championship. Then came his horrific back-nine 43 at this year's Masters, a Norman-esque collapse that saw McIlroy spiral out of the lead and all the way into a tie for 15th place.
McIlroy said after every setback that it would make him stronger in the future, but he had to prove it, and Westwood reminded him of the fact with a series of swipes in the press. Trophies aren't given away on Friday and Saturday. Rory had frittered away big leads before. And so on. But far from unnerving McIlroy, it may have actually helped him, giving an audible voice to his deepest fears.
Pundits had predicted this breakthrough for years, which is why McIlroy said his win Sunday brought a mixture of relief and joy. "More joy, though," he added.
McIlroy stood out early, appearing on TV in his native Northern Ireland as a boy, just as Woods did in the United States. At 18, McIlroy shot an opening-round 68 at the 2007 British Open, the only bogey-free round of the day. He was 19 when he earned his first pro victory, in Dubai, and he became the second 20-year-old, after Sergio Garcia, to break into the top 10 in the world. He made his Ryder Cup debut at 21, earning a crucial half-point in his singles match with Stewart Cink. But still, a sliver of doubt remained. Until Sunday, McIlroy had just two professional victories, one in Europe and one in the United States. He'd been a pro for four years. Something seemed to be holding him back.
"Rory was never a great putter," said Molinari, who last played with McIlroy at the Dubai Desert Classic in February, when McIlroy took the lead with rounds of 65-68, but faded to a tie for 10th with rounds of 75-74. "To win tournaments you have to be a great putter on the weekend, and I noticed yesterday he's changed his stroke."
Although his triple-bogey at 10 was the most indelible part of his Masters meltdown, McIlroy also missed a handful of five- to 10-foot putts, and it was that part of his game that he chose to address with short-game coach Dave Stockton. Among other changes, McIlroy adopted a point-and-shoot routine, all but eliminating a practice stroke.
The fun-loving McIlroy stopped tweeting this week, too, the best indicator in 2011 that an athlete really does have his game face on. (He returned to twitter with a trophy shot on Sunday night.) With "Rors," it's sometimes hard to tell. He said one of the lessons from the Masters was that he needed to be more ruthless, a bit like Woods, between the ropes. But McIlroy is not Woods, which comes as something of a relief for close followers of the game, given the baggage the former No. 1 has been dragging around the last few years.
This will be remembered not only as McIlroy's official emergence, but also as the U.S. Open that turned into a PGA Championship. Rain and humid weather softened the course all week, and not even the club's new SubAir drainage system could suck the moisture out of it. The leaderboard was awash in red, as 20 players finished under par compared to none last year.
"It's possible if you hit the fairways," said Alex Cejka, when asked if he could imagine shooting McIlroy's scores. "I didn't do that, but every time I did I had a 20-footer for birdie."
"He plays golf fantastic," Martin Kaymer said of McIlroy. "He hits it so long, the drive. But if you hit fairways, it's not really a U.S. Open golf course, to be honest. It plays softer. You have birdie chances the first nine; it plays fairly easy."
Although the course's vulnerability was attributed to the damp weather, even the wispy rough wasn't particularly intimidating, a far cry from the stuff that smothered stray shots at the '97 Open at Congressional.
"I shot even par in a U.S. Open," Ryan Palmer (70) said as he packed up his things in the locker room. He shrugged his shoulders; he wouldn't even finish in the top 20. "What can you do?"
"I think the course did me a few favors this week with the condition of it," McIlroy said. "If this golf course was firm and hard, I don't think anyone could have got to 16 under par."
No matter the Open-worthiness of the course, no one could begrudge McIlroy his moment. He becomes the fourth-straight men's major winner in his 20s, but Charl Schwartzel, Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen didn't win like this. Padraig Harrington got so carried away Saturday that he said McIlroy, not Woods, might be the one to eclipse Jack Nicklaus's 18 professional majors. Jim Mackay, Phil Mickelson's caddie, went on record saying McIlroy's first two rounds were among the top five he's ever seen.
"He's a player with tremendous potential," said Harrington (73, five over total), "and winning fulfills that potential and makes it easier to keep going."
"Once you get the first," Molinari said, "the next one gets easier."
The British Open at Royal St. Georges begins July 14.