By John Manley
The U.S. Open trophy once again will cross the Atlantic to take up a year’s residence in Northern Ireland, only in different hands. And by the looks of things, the trophy might be on something of a U.S. to Belfast shuttle over the next couple decades.
Rory McIlroy fulfilled all the potential that pundits believed he was destined for with an 8- stroke victory at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. in a performance that established several new standards for the event.
At the age of 22, McIlroy became the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923. McIlroy’s 72-hole total of 272 smashed the Open record by four strokes. When he finished 54 holes with a score of 199, he became the first man to break 200 at that juncture in the event. Being 16 strokes under par after 72 holes is also a first. He also became the first man to reach 17 under in a U.S. Open (he gave back a stroke with a bogey at 17 on Sunday).
McIlroy led from start to finish, the sixth such person to turn the trick in this event. He is the fourth U.S. Open champion to shoot all four rounds under par and the third to record a score in the 60s in each round. He also landed his ball on the green in regulation on 62 of 72 chances, an 86 percent strike rate, which is the highest for as long as the U.S.G.A. has monitored this statistic.
FAST OUT OF THE GATE
McIlroy was among the first to head out on Thursday morning and immediately put himself in the crosshairs with an opening 65 that gave him a 3-stroke lead as night fell. This wasn’t done in relative obscurity, either. He was slotted with Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, each of whom had also seen almost certain major glory turn to ashes in recent years.
The lead only lengthened with each passing day. McIlroy was six strokes up on Y.E. Yang, his nearest pursuer, after Friday’s round of 66, and ahead by eight heading into Sunday.
Only a caveman wouldn’t have speculated as to how McIlroy would hold up with such a large lead, considering his squandering of a 6-stroke advantage two months prior. But when he confidently strode to his ball on the first green and, without so much as a wiggle, solidly rapped a 10-footer in for birdie, there seemed to be a statement on his part that a different sort of history was in the making. McIlroy just as nervelessly knocked in a 5-footer for par on the second green.
McIlroy’s first challenge of Sunday afternoon came when he drove his tee shot into a fairway bunker. The situation could have resulted in the giving up of multiple strokes, but he found the green and drained an 8-foot putt for par.
The highlight reel shot of the day came at the par-3 10th hole, when McIlroy’s tee shot over water rolled up the incline behind the pin and then reversed course, stopping mere inches from the cup. He tapped in for birdie.
The first bogey of the day materialized at 12, when McIlroy’s putt slithered by the cup. That cut his lead to eight strokes. There would be another bogey at 17, but that hardly mattered. The coronation was well under way.
“After I got past the 11th [hole], I sort of knew I would have had to have done something really, really stupid to not win,” McIlroy said after his Sunday round.
McIlroy admitted that conditions conspired to his advantage.
“When I got here last week to do my practice rounds and everything, I felt like this golf course was well suited to me,” McIlroy said. “The conditions helped, as well, you know. It was soft. With my high ball flight, I was able to stop it on the greens. When you hit the fairways like I was able to this week, you’re going to give yourself a lot of opportunities for birdies. If this golf course was firm and hard, I don’t think anyone could have got to 16 under par.”
THE MASTERS ON HIS MIND
Padraig Harrington said several years ago that before he could realize what it took to win Major golf championships, he had to endure several losses. Very few people (and Greg Norman would be a notable exception) have endured a loss on as spectacular a scale as did McIlroy at Augusta in April’s Masters. But he apparently learned from that and overcame not only the rest of the field but also himself to win the U.S. Open in equally spectacular fashion.
McIlroy admitted that his approach to the Sunday round at Augusta cost him the Masters.
“Just being so tentative and trying to keep ahead of the field, instead of playing a free-flowing game like I usually do,” McIlroy said by way of explanation. “Going back to Augusta, the first three days, I played aggressively. I played smartly, but I played aggressively to my targets and aggressively to the spots I wanted to hit. And then going into Sunday, I started to play defensively, and that’s when things can go wrong.”
McIlroy also appreciated the love shown him by the galleries both at Congressional and elsewhere since his Masters debacle.
“The support I got out there today was absolutely incredible,” McIlroy said. “I think every cloud has a silver lining and I think what happened at Augusta was a great thing for me in terms of support. It’s just been incredible the way people have supported me and cheered for me the whole week.”
Dave Stockton also got a shout-out from McIlroy for his help with putting.
“People often said to me we think you’re too quick on the greens,” McIlroy said. “But he thought the opposite. ‘You’re taking too much time. Why are you taking three practice strokes? Don’t take any practice strokes anymore.’ It seemed to work.”
McIlroy also tipped his cap to the support system that put him in place to succeed.
“A big help to me growing up was the Golfing Union of Ireland and the help that they gave me throughout my junior career and amateur career, enabling me to go and play in different places in the world, learn about different conditions, different cultures, which really prepared me for coming out on Tour,” McIlroy said. “I love being from Northern Ireland. I tell everyone how great it is. For me, it’s the best place on earth. I’m obviously biased, but I love it back there and I love the people.”
A BEAR KICK
Finally, McIlroy also expounded on advice given him by Jack Nicklaus at the Golden Bear’s Memorial Tournament a few weeks earlier.
“He just said he would kick my backside, but that was about it,” is how McIlroy related Nicklaus’ [presumably] facetious comment about the Masters meltdown. “We just had a laugh and a joke about it, and it was all good fun. You know, he said to me, ‘I’m expecting big things from you.’ It’s a nice pressure to have knowing that the greatest player ever at the moment thinks that you’re going to do pretty good.
“He’s all about majors. He emphasized so much to me about not making mistakes. That was his big thing. He said people lost a lot more majors and gave them to him than he actually won. That’s how he felt. It’s a good piece of advice to have.”
For the future, to be sure. But not this time. Rory McIlroy went out and put a stranglehold on this U.S. Open and unequivocally won the first of what are likely to be many majors to come.