With a card that included six birdies and no bogies, Rory McIlroy spent most of Thursday afternoon at the US Open looking like he was a playing a different course from the rest of the field. Much like it did during the opening round of three of the last four majors, his ball-striking looked nearly invulnerable as he coasted to a 65 and a three-shot lead.
Indeed, the contrast between the McIlroy’s performance and that of player partner Phil Mickelson couldn’t have been more marked. While the Northerner found fairway after fairway off the tee, largely bypassing Congressional’s most testing obstacles to scoring, Mickelson, Vegas’s would-be favourite, struggled to consistently put the ball in play. Their scores at day’s end, in what must surely be a vote for the fairness of the set-up, were separated by a gulf of some nine shots.
McIlroy’s first round may have confounded the post-Masters hand-wringing of many, myself included, and gone some way towards demonstrating his depth of character, but it’s also placed him under strange sort of pressure heading into the final three rounds.
A win would put in place the final, redemptive strands of a story the media is just dying to write, and bring with it a reputation for precisely the sort of good-natured resilience that distinguishes the game’s most enduring champions from its also-rans. Another loss– as opposed to a mere failure to win (a fine distinction)– however, could go a long way towards branding McIlroy a prodigously talented lightweight, an unnatural champion gifted with a terminally naive grasp of the game’s fundamentals.
If anything, then, Rory’s 65 (a score that must surely draw a line under Hunter Mahan’s 62 debate) has upped the ante in terms of defining his golfing legacy. Whereas he can seek some solace in the fact that imperious ball-striking alone can probably carry a player further at a US Open than any other major, it can only really hope to postpone, not avoid, the putting to trials of Sunday afternoon.
Two roads diverge in a wood; for his sake, let’s hope Rory can take the one less travelled.