BETHESDA, Md. – If you can’t have drama, you might as well have historical brilliance. Tiger Woods conditioned us in that regard over and over, in 1997, in 2000, at other places on golf’s roving main stage. Now Rory McIlroy is following suit and stunning us with rare separation.
It is way too premature and unfair to suggest McIlroy is the next Woods. The next two decades will allow him to carve out his own legacy, one from which we probably won’t want to divert our eyes.
But it is sensible to suggest McIlroy has pulled a Woods here. Like Woods in 2000, he siphoned the drama out of a major by the lunch hour on Friday and hasn’t taken his foot off the gas since.
We’ve seen this movie before.
What we have here is another prodigy, another separation player. So many players have won majors almost by accident, by hanging around and cashing in on the crumbling of others. McIlroy is not one of those. He’s a streamroller, a guy speeding through, a guy stretching imagination and records.
The way McIlroy, only 22, has played this week in taking an eight-stroke 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open at Congressional, you get the sense that this is merely the rim of the volcano. Copious amounts of big trophies, barring the unexpected, figure to spew forth.
Perhaps the only thing that will keep him from winning Sunday is a Tin Cup, a DiVicenzo, a texting scandal or an out-of-body-experience by Y.E. Yang that translates to 59.
What we’re seeing here is a young man who has learned from his collapses of the past year – the 80 after an opening 63 at the British Open, the 80 after taking the Masters third-round lead. We seem to be witnessing what we saw from Tom Watson in the mid-70s, a talent who used major blowups as a springboard to greatness.
Though he looks like he’s not even old enough to shave, McIlroy has led in each of the last four majors. He has led in all of the last eight major rounds. He has held the lead after six of the last seven major rounds.
You might say he has caught on. And so what started as the so-called U.S. Wide Open appears closed.
“Now I know how to approach tomorrow (Sunday); that’s the biggest thing,” McIlroy said after a Saturday 68 that gave him a 54-hole record of 199 and made him the first Open player ever to reach 14 under. “At Augusta it was all a little too new to me. I didn’t know whether to be aggressive or defensive. All these experiences of the last year have helped me mature as a golfer.”
He has simplified his approach and cleared his mind. He has boiled his task down to two focal points in dealing with pressure.
“Make good decisions and make good swings,” he said. “That’s all I’ve tried to do, especially today. Just lose yourself in the shot.”
Of course, there are 18 holes left. Of course, Paul Lawrie came from 10 shots back the last day to win the 1999 British Open. But then Congressional isn’t the windy and diabolical Carnoustie, and McIlroy isn’t Jean Van de Velde.
Point is, you’ll have to search far and wide to find someone who thinks McIlroy will not win. Not only is he wiser, he’s a ball-striking machine set on cruise control. He has made but one bogey and one double bogey over 54 holes with that long, flowing, natural swing that hasn’t been tweaked much since he was 16.
McIlroy’s swing looks effortless, yet he carries the ball well over 300 yards, even though he’s 5 feet 9 inches and 160 pounds. Like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman in yesteryear, he has established himself as golf’s premier long and straight driver. Hence the nickname BMW, as in Ultimate Driving Machine.
Over and over we’ve seen him finish in balance, holding his finish until his ball is on the ground. It looks like he’s posing.
Get used to it. He’ll do it Sunday with a trophy in his hands.