BETHESDA, Md. — Rory McIlroy made it look easy in the second round of the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on Friday. Then he reminded himself and everyone else that nothing is a foregone conclusion in sports, and especially not in major-championship golf.
After getting to 13 under par through his first 35 holes, more strokes under than any player has ever been at any point of a U.S. Open, McIlroy tugged his drive into the rough on 18. He then pulled his attempted recovery shot as well, watching his ball splash into the pond around the peninsula green. He could not get up and down and settled for a double-bogey 6 and a 66.
At 11 under par, the 22-year-old still finished the day with a whopping six-stroke lead over second-place Y.E. Yang (69).
"I'm feeling good, feeling very good," McIlroy said with a laugh. "You know, it's funny to me, it feels quite simple. I'm hitting fairways. I'm hitting greens. I'm holing my fair share of putts. And that's really been the key. And I've missed a couple of greens that I was able to get it up and down."
Tiger Woods (2000) and Gil Morgan (1992) got to 12 under par at a U.S. Open. McIlroy also set a record with his eagle 2 at the eighth hole, which got him to 10 under in just 26 holes, making him the fastest player to get to double digits under par at a U.S. Open. McIlroy also tied another record: Woods held the largest 36-hole lead at a U.S. Open, six strokes, at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
"He's striking it flawlessly and putted great on the greens," said Phil Mickelson, who played with McIlroy for the first two days and also made double on 18 to card a second-round 69. He was one over for the tournament, 12 back. "His first two rounds were very impressive."
Coming off a first-round 68, Yang, the 2009 PGA champion, made pars on his first six holes before making four birdies and two bogeys the rest of the way.
Brandt Snedeker, who shot his second-straight 70 to go into the weekend two under and nine shots back, admitted that the fan part of him loved what McIlroy was doing. The fellow competitor part, not so much.
"I think he's only going to get harder to beat," Snedeker said. "It's fun to kind of watch him grow up."
Woods skipped this week's tournament to rest his sore left knee and Achilles' tendon, and he is still rebuilding his life as a divorced father while working on his swing with Sean Foley. Golf has an opening for a charismatic young star, and McIlroy appears to be just such a player. But can McIlroy finish what he's started at Congressional after a recent history of major trainwrecks?
"He's got to finish it off," NBC's Johnny Miller said after going off the air. "He needs to win this one to get rid of that haunting, because if he were to blow it again who knows what it could do to his career."
If they gave out trophies for being part of the way home, Rory McIlroy would own a quarter of the claret jug and three-fourths of the green jacket. With a four-shot lead through three rounds at Augusta this year, McIlroy shot a gruesome final-round 80 to finish 10 shots behind winner Charl Schwartzel. McIlroy fired an opening-round 63 to lead the British Open at St. Andrews last summer but blew up in the wind with an 80 the next day. He flirted with the lead at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in August but finished a shot out of the playoff.
As a result, no one at Congressional was ready to give up Friday, especially with half the field yet to even tee off for round two when McIlroy finished. For all the records he set, McIlroy also authored, unofficially, golf's most tenuous-looking six-stroke lead.
"I don't really know what to say," he said. "It's been two very, very good days of golf. I put myself in a great position going into the weekend. But I know probably more than anyone else what can happen. So I've got to stay really focused and try and finish this thing off."
Until he doubled 18, where he said he got grass caught between his club and the ball, McIlroy hadn't made as much as a bogey in two days.
"He has the rarest ability to separate himself from the field with his talent," the 25-time PGA Tour winner Miller said. "Tiger had it. Nicklaus didn't do it too much, believe it or not. I actually did it. Some guys can win by 14, win by nine. Rory seems to have that ability with his precision, tee to green, to just dominate with his ball-striking, which is really great to see, instead of just doing it with smoke and mirrors like Phil Mickelson. I really like to see a guy who's a pure ball-striker rise to the top again like Tiger Woods in 2000."
But can McIlroy win this time? It is one of the most well-worn cliches in sports and in life that our defeats teach us more than our successes. It's very often true. This is why McIlroy later said of his 80 at St. Andrews: "It was a very valuable lesson in my development as a golfer." It's why he said of his near miss at the PGA, where he went off in the second-to-last group Sunday: "I was feeling it on the first tee, and it was a new experience for me, and today will stand me in good stead for the future." And it's why McIlroy said after his debacle at Augusta: "I didn't handle it particularly well today, obviously, but it was a character-building day, put it that way. I'll come out stronger for it."
What exactly has been the lesson? McIlroy says he needs to have a bit more of an attitude on the course, to act and behave as if he's bulletproof. He also needs to guard against getting quick under the gun. His left misses at Congressional's watery 18th hole Friday may have reminded viewers of his 10th-hole unraveling at Augusta, where a hook off the tee also led to trouble, but he has mostly put on a clinic at Congressional. He's hit 20 of 28 fairways and 32 of 36 greens in regulation. He's had no three-putts and has taken just 52 strokes on the greens. He's played a different game from the rest of the field.
But with two worldwide victories in four years as a pro, and a history of high-pressure crack-ups, the time has come to show, not tell, what he's learned.