As McIlroy dominates, a major force looks on

Rory McIlroy during the second round of the U.S. Open.

BETHESDA, Md. – As young Rory McIlroy made his way from station to station for post-round press interviews on Friday after placing the 111th U.S. Open in a secure headlock, an interested onlooker stood quietly off to the side, taking in the scene. 

Dave Stockton knows a little about Rory McIlroy – he has worked with him on his putting for a couple of sessions in the past month – and he knows a little about Congressional, too. Stockton captured the 1976 PGA Championship here at the Blue Course, edging Raymond Floyd and Don January. 

“You can’t get that far under par,” Stockton said increduously after McIlroy reached 13 under through 35 holes and then settled in at 11-under 131 through two rounds after a sizzling, second-round 66. Stockton is convinced there will be a day McIlroy is the No. 1 player in the world. “He’s the complete package. You’re looking at a guy who hit every fairway basically (20 of 28) and every green (32 of 36) and, oh, by the way, he made 13 birdies [actually, 11 and an eagle]. Shoot, Phil (Mickelson) birdied the eighth hole and lost a shot.”

Mickelson also shot 3 under on the front nine and lost ground to McIlroy, who shot 32. 

Stockton and McIlroy got together when the PGA Tour visited Charlotte a few weeks after the Masters, and they also worked together at Wentworth, in England, at the BMW PGA Championship. Stockton had watched McIlroy miss some putts left at the Masters and thought he could help make an adjustment. But mainly Stockton’s advice has centered on two things: One, the speed of McIlroy’s routine on the greens, which was a little too brisk; and two, setting his feet with his eyes focused on the hole and where he is going, not focused on the golf ball. 

“He plays fast like I do, which I think is great,” Stockton said. “But I wanted everything slowed down. I want him to enjoy it.”

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McIlroy has been toying and traveling with a Scotty Cameron GSS Newport Prototype putter given to him personally by Cameron at the 2010 WGC-Match Play. Previously McIlroy putted with a Cameron mallet-style putter; this is an Anser-style model with a chromatic bronze finish, and Congressional marks the first week he has put it into play in the United States. On a golf course where many are just trying to hang on with pars, McIlroy has rolled in 11 birdies in two days to go along with a wedge he dunked for eagle at the par-4 eighth Friday.

Thirty-five years ago, Stockton enjoyed one of the finest moments of his career at Congressional, where he emerged from a pack to be something of a surprise winner. It was a surprise in the fact that Congressional measured more than 7,000 yards at the time, and even Stockton thought it was way too long for him. 

“I’d spent Monday (of tournament week) at the White House with President (Gerald) Ford. I didn’t have any visions about winning at Congressional because it was longer than hell,” Stockton said. “It didn’t favor me by any stretch.”

But he caught a nice break when five fourth-round holes he played in 3 over were washed out by a Sunday storm that canceled play. He was able to restart his final round a day later and played the same stretch in 2 under (“I might not have even top-tenned,” he said). Stockton needed to make par at the par-4 18th (the ’76 PGA finished on the same hole as this year’s U.S. Open), and used a 3-wood off the tee because he hadn’t hit a fairway since the 11th hole. It left him with 220 yards, another good 3-wood back then, and with water left of the green, he decided to lay up. He wedged to 15 feet, then holed the winning putt, preventing the championship from being the first major to be settled in a sudden-death playoff.

Now Stockton hopes his new pupil can savor the same championship taste come Sunday. 

“He’s just a great kid,” Stockton said. “He’s easy to teach; he really is.”

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