TORONTO - Phil Mickelson was the publicized big show coming into the U.S. Open in the absence of Tiger Woods, so it seemed to be a rather poignant moment when Lefty was dispensing the applause on the eighth fairway at Congressional Friday.
The real prime-time player on golf’s main stage this week had just holed out with a pitching wedge for eagle to take him to four under on the day and 10-under for the tournament to seemingly leave the rest of the field fighting for second place as Rory McIlroy pushed it to 11-under by the end of the day.
Only McIlroy’s watery double bogey on 18 gave any indication that he is made of flesh and blood instead of nuts and bolts, which seemed to be the case with his machine-like progress through his first 35 holes of this production without a blemish to post the lowest two-round total in U.S. Open history (131).
That six-shot lead he possesses tempts the pundits and patrons to prematurely begin the coronation of McIlroy as champion and slayer of Congressional despite the conventional U.S. Open wisdom about the potential land mines ahead and a player from the pack so far back suddenly getting hot.
For his purposes, McIlroy must resist the urge to listen to the plaudits coming in the same way he tuned out those who said his failure to seal the deal in previous majors in which he looked so dominant would have a devastating effect on him despite the fact he is so impressive at the tender age of 22.
McIlroy is the best player to never win a major, but that tag is not meant for someone who has been around for such a short time. It’s the human condition that predicts failure before success and those people will be waiting if McIlroy experiences another meltdown of epic proportions.
Between yesterday’s final putt and his tee shot this afternoon, McIlroy will have a lot of time to think about that possibility, but whatever happens over the next two days, give the kid his due for consistency in the majors over the past year.
McIlroy takes it up several gears every time he steps on to golf’s centre stage the way that Tiger did in his prime and that is not meant as a prediction that McIlroy will have 14 major titles in the next decade-and-a-half. He does appear ready for his first though, with more to come.
That’s only to say that McIlroy is crashing the party, not bouncing the likes of Woods or Mickelson, who put together an uninspiring but effective two-under effort yesterday to go into the weekend at one over.
With Charl Schwartzel, 26, Martin Kaymer, also 26, and Louis Oosthuizen, 28, winning the last three majors, the new world order in the majors for the next 10 to 15 years is being set.
That’s what keeps this U.S. Open interesting, even with that bloated lead.
Two-time major champion and putting specialist Dave Stockton has been working with McIlroy since the Masters. One of Stockton’s two wins at the PGA Championship came at Congressional in 1976 … If you think McIlroy’s six-shot lead makes him a lock, consider the fate of Bubba Dickerson whose back nine yesterday consisted of bogeys on eight holes. The other was a double bogey on 11. Dickerson, who also had a bogey on the fourth hole, started the day in a tie for 10th, but crashed all the way out of contention … Of course, one of McIlroy’s idols, Nick Faldo, was the beneficiary of a legendary collapse at the 1996 Masters, when Greg Norman carded a final round 78 and went from a six-shot lead to losing by five … After a birdie on 17 yesterday, McIlroy got it to 13-under, the lowest score at any point in U.S. Open history.
Meanwhile, back in the pack
Former Canadian Tour player Steve Stricker, the top-ranked American at No. 4 in the world, followed up a 75 with a 69 Friday and says the rest of the field has to put McIlroy’s huge lead out of their minds. “There’s a long way to go yet. I mean, (we) just got to keep hanging in there and keep trying to shoot under par. He’s got to come back. The way he’s playing now, it doesn’t seem like he’ll do that. You’ve just got to keep fighting and see what happens, but pretty incredible what he’s done so far.” … McIlroy’s closest rivals after the first round were at three-under and out of that group, only Y.E. Yang seemed willing or able to put a dent in the lead McIlroy built in the morning. Yang’s four birdies were countered by a couple of bogeys and he’s solo second at five-under with his closest competitors at two-under … Had Yang not made such a slight cut into McIlroy’s lead, the latter would have set another U.S. Open record for the widest 36-hole lead in tournament history. Woods led by six at the midway point in 2000 at Pebble Beach and wound up winning by 15.