BETHESDA, Md. — Rory McIlroy isn’t Tiger Woods in his prime. Not just yet. If he was, this United States Open at Congressional would already be over.
Oh, it looks like it’s over. It feels like it’s over. And McIlroy, who has played nearly flawless golf on the way to setting the U.S. Open 54-hole scoring record, looks as invincible as you-know-who when he won the you-know-what slam in 2001.
But strange things can happen in 18 holes, and young McIlroy has already lived through some of them. The first-round 63 in last year’s British Open followed by the second-round 80. The 54-hole lead at this year’s Masters followed by the final-round 80.
Even then, though, McIlroy never looked this good. Once he wins this Open, those failures will be forgotten the way young Tom Watson’s initial major championship slip-ups were forgotten, and the debate will begin over whether Rory is the best player in the world or the next Tiger — or possibly both.
McIlroy didn’t let his foot off the accelerator much in Saturday’s third round. He shot 68 to finish at 14 under, eight shots ahead of Y.E. Yang and nine-shots ahead of Jason Day, Robert Garrigus and Lee Westwood.
“You can’t get complacent,” McIlroy said. “No lead is big enough. A big lead comes with more pressure, but I felt very comfortable out there today. I’ve changed immensely since last year. All these experiences have helped a lot. You’ve got to mature as a golfer, and now I’m thinking better on the golf course and making better decisions.”
McIlroy has quite a lead, but in honor of the memories of Greg Norman at Augusta, Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie and Arnold Palmer at Olympic Club, let’s not hand him the trophy just yet. Certainly no one else is going to.
Not Day, the young Australian who keeps getting better and better. He shot 65 in the third round with the help of a hot putter. He was hoping to be paired in Sunday’s final twosome with McIlroy, with whom he played three rounds at the Masters, and the chances of that looked good because he was the first to post a score of five under. Then Yang birdied two of the last five holes to jump past him at six under.
“I’ve known Rory since he was 15 and we played junior golf,” Day said. “Obviously, he’s got a great game. He’s got a bunch of talent. He’s a great guy. So he’s a hard guy to hate. It’s unbelievable how much talent he has at 22. There aren’t enough nice things to say about him. But man, I’m just trying to catch him, obviously. The way he’s playing is almost Tiger-esque. To have the lead he has in a U.S. Open is pretty ridiculous.”
Not Westwood, either, who has had a few duels with McIlroy on the European tour. “I’m just happy to be in the tournament,” said England’s Westwood, the No. 2 player in the world. “I thought I was going home after my round Thursday. I played dreadful.
“My mission was to get myself somewhere into the tournament. I said, maybe if I can get to 10 under on the weekend. You don’t know how Rory is going to do. You don’t know how he’s going to deal with the big lead. He had a big lead in a major and didn’t deal with it well before. There’s pressure on him with regards to that. So, we’ll see. All I can do is try to shoot as low a score as possible for me.”
Two days of occasional showers finally softened Congressional’s greens enough to allow for low scores in the non-Rory divisions. Before Saturday, no player other than Rory was really lighting up the course. Two under par was in a tie for third place after 36 holes. Then the U.S. Open turned into the John Deere Classic — at least, by Open standards.
The birdies and eagles began to come in bunches Saturday. Webb Simpson, who was in the third group off after rounds of 75 and 71, piled up seven birdies en route to a 66. Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson, who started at one over par, also put up an easy 66. Then came Day and Westwood with matching 65s.
“When I got to the practice area this morning, I saw Webb Simpson walk through nine holes at four under par,” Day said. “If you play well, you could shoot a low score. I drove the ball well, hit a lot of quality second shots on the front. I fell asleep during the middle of my round, which didn’t help. I putted really well. My putter saved me on the back nine.”
Day holed a lengthy birdie putt on the par-4 18th, where the tees were moved up and the hole, which can play as long as 520 yards, was a mere 476 yards. McIlroy’s lead, no matter what size, won’t affect Day’s game plan Sunday.
“I’m excited to be where I am right now; I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” Day said. “It’s going to be pretty tough to catch Rory. You know you can’t fire at every pin. You’ve got to give yourself an opportunity for birdie, whether it’s a 10-footer or a 30-footer. He’s playing great golf. We’ll see how it goes.”
McDowell was another player who recognized that this U.S. Open hasn’t played like a normal U.S. Open. In other words, penal, nasty and no fun.
“I’m a little disappointed with the course,” the defending U.S. Open champion said. “It wasn’t as firm and fast as I would have liked. The storms Thursday night really softened the place. The greens are receptive. So it’s not a true U.S. Open test out there, to be honest.
“I talked to Mickelson’s caddie, Bones (Jim Mackay), who said Rory has played out there like it’s the Bob Hope Classic. He’s aiming at every pin like he’s supposed to shoot 65. This setup has allowed him to do that. I hope he goes on and does it because I’ve been waiting for this to happen. He’s that good, no doubt about it.”
McIlroy, meanwhile, played Congressional for a third straight day as easily as a game of Golden Tee. He made a couple of beautiful saves early, notably a bunker shot on the fourth green that he nearly holed. Then he added a 12-foot birdie putt at the fifth to get to 12 under par.
At the par-5 ninth, he played a long iron to 25 feet past the pin and lagged his eagle putt close for a tap-in birdie. That got him to 13 under par for the second time. The first time was Friday before he finished with a double bogey at the 18th. Woods and Gil Morgan are the only other players to reach 12 under par in Open history. McIlroy got to 13 under twice in two days.
There was a rare bogey at No. 10, the most dangerous hole on the course, but it was hardly a mistake. McIlroy hit a 7-iron shot and clearly liked it, twirling the club in his grip the way Woods used to do after a good shot. It carried just a bit long, however, and bounded into the back bunker. He missed his par putt, but no matter — he rebounded with an 18-foot birdie putt at the long par-4 11th. At the 14th, he hit another one close and made birdie to become the first man to 14 under par. It seems like he’s been setting new Open records every day.
At 17, his approach shot spun back down a ridge, leaving him a monstrous putt of about 80 feet. He rolled the first one 10 feet past and then poured the par putt in as easy as you please. That par kept his lead at eight strokes.
“It’s a race for second place if Rory doesn’t let go,” said Yang, the former PGA champion who took down Tiger Woods at Hazeltine. “I have no regrets. Right now, the better player is leading.”
It’s not over yet. But it’s close. It’s very, very close.