Jun
18
2011
Rory’s Closing In on the (US) Open
By Stephanie Wei under US Open

BOOM!

Rory McIlroy didn’t make a bogey at Congressional until the 46th hole of the US Open. While he still held a seven-shot lead, he walked off the 10th green with a little less bounce to his stride having missed a short putt to save par. His tee shot on 11 found the left rough.

The cheery atmosphere dimmed slightly. I found myself feeling a little despondent. I didn’t think he was going to lose the lead, but it certainly felt like he might give a few shots back to the field. But apparently he had a good lie from the rough and took dead aim. My goodness, it’s going right at the flag! It stopped 15 feet from the pin.

This was going to be a big putt — a momentum swinger, if you will.

Rory looked at the putt from all sides, but he stayed in his routine. He took the same amount of time as he always does (which isn’t much compared to others). I couldn’t help but hold my breath. After he rolled in the putt for birdie, Rory celebrated with an emphatic fist pump. The pro-McIlroy gallery went wild. He walked off the green with an extra hop to his stride. And just like that, the momentum swung back in his favor.

“It was great to get that shot right back,” said Rory after firing a three-under 68. “10, 11 and 18 are the three really tough holes on this golf course. To make the bogey on 10 after  I hit a great 7-iron in there, it just pitched three or four yards long of where I really wanted it to, and played a great bunker shot, as well, just under-read the putt a little bit.

“To bounce back on 11 was huge for me.  It’s one of the toughest holes on the course, and when you birdie that you feel as if you’re picking up a shot and a half on the field.  It was big for me to birdie that and kept my momentum going for most of the back nine.”

I had chills. It was just one of those moments you won’t forget, yet it’s so hard to describe, but if you’ve been lucky enough to witness one — whether it’s a clutch three-pointer at the buzzer to extend a playoff series, or an 80-yard pass for a touchdown with the clock winding down, or a putt for birdie to regain a seven-shot lead during the third round of the US Open — it’s mind-blowing.

Kyle Auclair of InsidetheRopes.com and TourPlayers.com showed me a zoomed-in photo of Rory’s reaction. He caught the moment perfectly and I could see the fierce look in Rory’s eyes. It was almost Tiger-esque. It was intense. And it was when I felt pretty confident we could hand him the trophy.

Jason Day, who surged up the leaderboard with a 65, agrees.

“You heard him say he believes that he’s going to win several majors and I believed that when he said it, because he looks that confident,” said Day. “The way he’s playing out there, it’s almost Tiger-esque. It’s unbelievable how good he’s playing. To have the lead that he has in the U.S. Open is pretty ridiculous, and at such a young age.

“The next generation is starting to kick up now and he’s the guy that’s leading it.”

Tiger Who?

If you were following along in the WSJ live-blog, then you know I blacked out during the back nine because I was so focused (well, I was half-joking, but seriously, it was intense, lively and awesome).

When Rory strolled down nearly every fairway, up to every green, toward every tee, the crowd chanted, “Rory, Rory!” A group of guys started a cheer as he walked to 14 green, “Let’s go Rory! <clap-clap> Let’s go Rory!”

“It was incredible, the support that our group got out there was fantastic,” said McIlroy. “It’s nice when you get nearly a standing ovation on every green you walk up onto. Hopefully I can just give them something else to cheer about tomorrow.”

He already has. With his 14-under score of 199, McIlroy broke the record previously set by Jim Furyk at Olympia Fields in 2003 for the lowest first 54-holes in US Open history. After making birdie on 14 (wow, I didn’t realize that was history-making, but I knew he was going to make the putt), he became the first player to reach 14-under, besting the record of 13-under he set on Friday.

Padraig Harrington went as far as saying Rory would challenge Jack Nicklaus’ majors record.

“Rory has proved in playing the majors so far that he is comfortable making the scores and he’s managed to lead after 18 holes, 36 holes and 54 holes and 63 holes, so now all he has to do is get another nine holes and it looks like this will be the one,” said Harrington, winner of three major championships. “What is he, 22 years old? If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man. Winning majors at 22 with his talent — he would have 20 more years so probably 100 more majors in him where he could be competitive. It would give him a great chance.”

When told of Harrington’s projection, Rory smiled shyly and looked down, muttering, “Oh Paddy, Paddy, Paddy.”

He added: “I’m still looking for my first one.  That’s all I can say.  I’m looking for my first one.  I’ve put myself in a great position to do that tomorrow, and then we’ll see what happens from there. As I said before this week, it’s nice to have all these complimentary things said about you, but until you actually do these things, they don’t mean anything.”

Rory’s swing couldn’t look more solid, and he couldn’t look more comfortable and confident. It’s much different than it was at the Masters, where he appeared almost in awe of himself. Two months later at Congressional, when he says he’s learned and matured from his experience at Augusta, I believe him.

“From the experience that I had at Augusta, I know now how to approach tomorrow, and I think that’s the most important thing,” said McIlroy, pausing for a moment. “I feel like I know what I need to do tomorrow.

“At Augusta, it was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with the lead.  I didn’t know whether to be defensive, aggressive, go for it, not go for it, but now I know what I need to do, which is a great thing to have.  I have a clear mind going out there tomorrow, and I just need to stick to my game plan.”

Bring it home, Rory.

(Photos by Kyle Auclair/InsidetheRopes.com)