BETHESDA, Md. — Let’s hold off on the coronation of Rory McIlroy until Sunday.
It isn’t that we’ve been down this path before with this golf prodigy and felt silly at the end of the day. Nor is it that we can conceive of any way he can blow an eight-shot lead going into the final round of this U.S. Open.
It’s just that we need to save something for when he actually holds the trophy and makes the speech, even though he pretty much did that figuratively Saturday at a Congressional Country Club course that has been surprisingly docile to the entire field and has virtually rolled over for McIlroy so he could scratch its belly.
The story line coming into Saturday was that McIlroy was burning up a major tournament again and we all needed to look for signs of ghosts of his implosions at the British Open last year and the Masters this year.
No ghosts. Not a hint.
Instead, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland turned a golf tournament into a pep rally.
The massive human wave that gathered to watch him on the first tee, and grew from hole to hole like a snowball rolling downhill, was thanked for its adulation with a round of three-under-par 68. Along with his 65-66, that got him to a 14-under figure that was lower than anybody had ever gotten in the 111 years of the U.S. Open. It also got him the U.S. Open record for lowest 54-hole total, topping Jim Furyk’s 200 in 2003.
He stepped onto the first tee with playing partner Y.E. Yang at 3:50 p.m. EDT, and it began. “Rory … Rory …” clap-clap-clap. And “Go Irish,” with nary a thought of fighting or a football team.
“It was incredible,” McIlroy said. “The support our group got out there was fantastic … nearly a standing ovation on every green.”
The “our group” reference was yet another example of how savvy and careful McIlroy is, despite his young age. Yang is a very good player who won a major by staring down Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA, but he was clearly low man on the adulation meter Saturday.
Yang struggled with his putter all day, shot a one-under 70 for 207, but held onto second place and will march the Congressional fairways in the last group with McIlroy again Sunday.
The public fascination with McIlroy is multifaceted.
Part of it is the sports fan’s never-ending thirst for the next big thing. We move from star to star and hero to hero as quickly as we tap our thumbs on cell phone keyboards. We want our new stars to pop up as fast as the answers to our texts.
Another part of it is that there appears to be a vacancy at the top in golf, and even some of the more credible tour players are starting to stand up and speak to it. Padraig Harrington, three-time major winner, told the reporters here that, if it was looking for the next challenger to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, that McIlroy was the man. That, of course, quickly placed Woods’ 14 majors in the ancient-history file.
McIlroy, when told of Harrington’s remarks at his news conference, put his head down on the table and murmured, “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy.” Then he smiled, as he always does, and said the right thing, as he always does.
“I’m just trying to win my first one.”
The public has also been privy to McIlroy’s bright and charming personality, and more recently, a sense that he has vision outside the competitive tunnel. The week before he arrived here for the U.S. Open, he traveled to earthquake-ravaged Haiti as part of a UNICEF group and was quoted the next day in the Belfast Telegraph as saying, “I saw things I never thought I’d see in my life.”
The next day, he changed the picture on his Twitter page from one of him hitting a golf ball as a toddler to one of him posing with a Haitian child.
When he folded up and shot an 80 on the last day of the Masters, he had begun the day on top by four. He says now that that experience should help him Sunday — as will four more strokes — because, “After that, I know how to approach tomorrow.”
Statistics tell only part of the McIlroy story, but they are impressive. In the last two majors, the Masters and this one, he has shot five rounds under 70 and has led six of the seven rounds played. Sadly for him, the one that mattered most, Sunday at Augusta, he shot 80.
After that Saturday Masters, the journalistic rhetoric spewed forth. There were torch-passings and red-shirt passings. The crown was put in place before anybody measured the size of the head.
So, even with a lead that makes the closest chasers think they have to shoot 60 Sunday, there are those who won’t be convinced until the last putt drops in. Count McIlroy in that group.
“It’s nice, all these things being said about me,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean anything until you win one.”
In his 54 holes of this tournament, McIlroy has failed to make par or birdie only twice. He had a ball barely slide into the water Friday on No. 18 for a double bogey, and he had a ball barely roll into a trap on No. 10 Saturday.
He hit shots at the pins all day. He set precise targets on the green and hit them. He broke his round down into small goals and met them.
The big goal is all that is left. Roll out the red carpet and dust off the throne.