McIlroy's rise a huge boost for the game

Rory McIlroy, Round 3, 2011 U.S. Open
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy has made only one bogey and one double bogey this week.

BETHESDA, Md. — The fan with a clubhouse badge held up his right hand, the American-born but now near-universal sign for give me some love, but as his intended target marched toward the doors to the practice putting green, on his way to extinguish the last dying hopes of the field, the runaway leader of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club blew by without a glance.

Rory McIlroy is turning into Tiger Woods before our eyes, and not a moment too soon.

Everybody was waiting for McIlroy to fall apart in the third round Saturday. More than one observer noted that his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, was wearing the same black, silver and yellow Oakley shirt that McIlroy wore during his final-round 80 at the Masters. More than one observer noted that Y.E. Yang, six back of his playing partner McIlroy as their round began on the verge of cocktail hour at 3:50 p.m. Eastern time, was six behind Woods halfway through the 2009 PGA Championship. (We know how that turned out.)

"We'll see what Rory does," Lee Westwood said. "He's had leads before."

What did Rory do Saturday? Oh, nothing much. He made some pars, some birdies. When he got out of position, as he did on the third hole, he pitched out, wedged up close and made his par. He hit the par-5 ninth hole in two and made an easy-looking two-putt birdie, and after a bogey on the par-3 10th, bounced back with another birdie on the harrowing, 486-yard 11th hole. His 68 left him at 14 under, a 54-hole U.S. Open record, and eight ahead of Yang, nine clear of Jason Day, Robert Garrigus and Lee Westwood.

"It's just phenomenal," said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, who shot 69 and stands at level par for the tournament. "You run out of superlatives to describe what he's doing this week. He's decimating a field."

Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. How many will McIlroy win by on Father's Day, with dad Gerry (the original G-Mac) watching the coronation?

If you care a dimple about professional golf, this is exactly the conversation you hoped to be having. Woods carried the Tour for 15 years, and then he vanished without even asking anyone to cover his shift. It's just as well. Plenty of players had the charisma; no one had the game. Not Luke Donald, the new No. 1. Not Anthony Kim and Dustin Johnson, both in the throes of a strange slump in 2011. Not Michael Whitehead, the skinny, Nike-clad kid who got into the field when Woods bowed out, and who shot 77-75.

Adam Scott employed Tiger's caddie, Steve Williams, this week, but that didn't go so well. Sitting at 4-over-par, Scott, whose swing has always resembled Tiger's circa 2000, hit his approach shot in the water on 18 Friday and made bogey to miss the cut by one. Williams left the course without comment, and Scott wasn't exactly in an expansive mood, either. Go figure.

McIlroy, 22, makes up for all of that. He's the most compelling figure in the field as measured by more than just score. His limber, metronomic swing recalls a young Freddy Couples. His hair is part Beatle, part Muppet, part headcover. He's built up near total resistance to the Disease of Me, so that when he blew a four-shot lead at Augusta, he not only spoke to the press, but, aboard a private jet bound for the next tournament, he tweeted a picture of himself with winner Charl Schwartzel wearing the green jacket. Last week, McIlroy went to Haiti with Unicef.

Instead of moving to a gated golf community like Lake Nona, Fla., he stayed close to home, Holywood, Northern Ireland, building a golfer's dream house that includes a short-game area with a replica of the Road Hole bunker. He sometimes tweets back and forth with his pal LeBron James — they share a watch sponsor — but he is happiest hanging out with his childhood friends or his dogs. McIlroy's golf game gives him a license to print money, but even if it didn't you get the feeling he'd be exactly what you want in your own kid. He'd be happy.

"I wanted to catch up a little bit, I have to be honest with you," Yang said after shooting a third-round 70 to fall further behind. "But the player with the better shot, the better putt, the better composure, is leading right now."

The big lesson from the Masters, McIlroy said, was that he had to be more cocky inside the ropes. Hence the 1,000-yard stare and the blow-off of a pre-round high-five. That's the way Tiger would do it. But you can see McIlroy finding his own style. Ice-cool is not his thing. He's a connector. Fans chanted, "Let's go, Rory," as he toured the soft, truncated (7,413 yards) Blue Course on Saturday, and McIlroy didn't pay much mind at first. But by the time he rolled in a birdie putt on 14 to get to 14 under, nine clear of the field, and they started chanting again as he walked to the 15th green, McIlroy felt comfortable enough to look over and give a small smile. He can't help it. He may or may not win as much as his golf idol, but he'll almost certainly wind up being about 10 majors more relatable than Woods.

McIlroy's approachability, his greatest strength as a public figure, was his greatest weakness. Giving him the cold shoulder and a psychological beatdown at the 2009 Dubai World Championship, Lee Westwood took the kid 66-68, after which McIlroy admitted he was glad he wasn't playing with the Englishman the next day.

"It was a very good lesson in how to be ruthless," he said later.

He's wiser for the experience, just as he seems to have been toughened up by his Augusta National wipeout, his near-miss at the 2010 PGA — he finished a shot out of the Martin Kaymer/Bubba Watson playoff — and his second-round 80 at last summer's British Open at St. Andrews. He went to the first tee Saturday at Congressional leading by a touchdown, and left the 18th green leading by a TD and a two-point conversion. We've seen this before, from a guy, Woods, who obsessed over the accomplishments of Jack Nicklaus, and now we see it again from a guy, McIlroy, who studied the accomplishments of Woods.

Golf lives.

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