BETHESDA, Md. — The manner in which Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open made comparisons with Tiger Woods inevitable.
Not since Woods’ historic 15-shot win at Pebble Beach in 2000 has anyone crushed the competition at a U.S. Open. McIlroy’s performance was so stunning at Congressional that only four of his 72 holes were worse than par, he broke the scoring record by four shots and finished at an astounding 16-under 268.
Such a score is rare at the other three majors. It’s unfathomable for a U.S. Open.
The buzz around the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland made this feel like the 1997 Masters.
That was a watershed moment in the sport, signaling the arrival of Woods. He brought a breathtaking blend of power and putting, seized control of the tournament on the second day, demoralized Colin Montgomerie in the third round and won by 12 shots with a record score to become the youngest Masters champion.
Woods wasn’t at Congressional, but at times it felt like it.
The energy picked up late Friday morning, right after McIlroy holed out a pitching wedge for eagle on the par-4 eighth to become only the fifth player in U.S. Open history to reach double-digits under par.
The difference was it took him only 26 holes, and he was just getting warmed up. When he stood on the 10th tee, thousands of fans stood shoulder-to-shoulder from the tee all the way up the hill to the clubhouse. They crowded onto the verandah at the clubhouse, and there were so many fans leaning against the railing on the balcony they looked like passengers on a cruise ship coming into port.
All this to see a Boy Wonder who just might be the future of golf.
Golf might be ready for a new star, especially considering the personal failures of Woods and the health problems that cloud his future. McIlroy brings a killer instinct to the course, yet already has shown he can lose as well as he can win.
Leave it to a kid, however, to preach patience.
As he was on his way to posting the first sub-200 score over 54 holes in a U.S. Open — 14-under 199 — in the third round, Padraig Harrington declared him as being the player perhaps best suited to chase Jack Nicklaus’ benchmark of 18 professional majors.
“If you’re going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,” Harrington said. “Winning majors at 22 with his talent, he would have 20 more years ... where he could be competitive.”
Upon hearing this, McIlroy bowed his head and said quietly into the microphone with playful condemnation, “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy.”
Then came Sunday, when he was as relentless as ever, stretching his lead to as many as 10 shots, and his score as low as 17 under. Graeme McDowell, who grew up hearing about and then appreciating the skill of McIlroy, said he was the “best player I’ve ever seen.”
Who knows what the rest of the summer will hold for McIlroy. But for now, it’s hard not to imagine that if not for that 80 at Augusta, McIlroy would be headed to the British for the third leg of the Grand Slam.