Commentary

Rory McIlroy in league of his own

Originally Published: June 17, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

BETHESDA, Md. -- Who said Tiger Woods isn't at the U.S. Open? I've seen him all week.

You know who I'm talking about: Irish accent ... hair as curly as a telephone cord ... almost has the field lapped after two rounds. That guy.

Wait -- sorry, I meant Rory McIlroy. Woods is on the golf disabled list with a bum knee and Achilles. Nobody knows when he'll be back.

But that's OK, because McIlroy is doing a killer imitation of Eldrick, circa 2000, when Woods was vaporizing majors fields with his scorched-scorecard policy. McIlroy is at 11-under par entering Saturday's play, while almost everyone else is gasping for oxygen at roasty, toasty Congressional Country Club.

"Hopefully he doesn't get too crazy on us," said Robert Garrigus, who, under normal Open circumstances, would be in leader contention at minus-2. "But if he does, I'll be playing for second place, which is not bad, either."

That's what it's come to: The world's best players are thisclose to conceding the U.S. Open to the 22-year-old McIlroy. That's how dominating, how, well, Tiger-ish, he's been. McIlroy isn't just atop the leaderboard; he's hovering over it, almost golf god-like.

"I don't really know what to say," McIlroy said, almost sheepishly, after shooting a 5-under-par 66 on Friday. "It's been two very, very good days of golf."

Nobody knows what to say, except, "Wow." You can't describe some of what he's done because it's never been done before. McIlroy has taken a chalkboard eraser to all sorts of previous Open accomplishments and records. And in the process, he's made us sort of forget about what's-his-name.

McIlroy actually reached minus-13 for the Open when he birdied No. 17. Never been done before.

McIlroy was 10-under through just 26 holes at the Open. Never been done before.

McIlroy shot 65-66-131 for the first 36 holes at the Open. Never been done before.

Keep this up, and the USGA is going to have to Rory-ize future Open sites. He's playing one course, and everyone else seems to be playing another.

"I put myself in a great position going into the weekend," he said. "But I know more than probably anyone else what can happen."

Yes, the M Word -- Meltdown. That's what McIlroy did less than three months ago during the final round of the Masters. He had a four-stroke lead to start the day and lost by 10 to Charl Schwartzel. It was like watching your kid forget his lines in the school play.

The collapse has Velcro'd itself to McIlroy's golf legacy. It follows him around like a puppy. He can't go half a news conference without someone asking him about the residual effect of that Masters collapse.

It's a fair question, mostly because (A) McIlroy gagged that day, (B) 36 holes remain, (C) Y.E. Yang, who stared down Tiger to win a PGA championship, is in second at six strokes back and (D) McIlroy finished what could have been an even more historic round Friday with a careless double bogey on No. 18. After pulling the ball from the cup, McIlroy flung the ball into a nearby pond.

"I did a piece after Augusta where I said I needed to be a little more cocky, a little more arrogant on the golf course and think a little bit more about myself, which I've tried to incorporate a little bit -- just on the golf course," McIlroy said. "I just try and have a bit of an attitude, you know? But ... when I get myself in these positions, I have to really make sure that I don't get ahead of myself and I don't start playing defensively."

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Ross Kinnaird/Getty ImagesIt's always a good sign when a golfer picks his ball out of the cup with the flag still in the cup. Rory McIlroy got to do that after holing his wedge shot on the eighth hole.

That's what he did at Augusta on Sunday. He played not to lose. He also played too quickly, rushing his pace on every shot. It didn't help that he was paired that day with Angel Cabrera, known for his quick play.

Dave Stockton Sr., the two-time PGA Championship winner (he won one of them at Congressional in 1976) and putting guru, saw the same thing as he watched the Masters on TV. McIlroy's people contacted him shortly after the tournament, and he's been working with Rory ever since. One of the lessons: Slooooow down in pressure situations.

Stockton would know. He had the 54-hole lead at the 1974 Masters but ended up losing to Gary Player.

And according to McIlroy's agent, Chubby Chandler, Rory tried to be someone he wasn't. He tried to be Tiger -- all intensity and focus. But by doing so, he forgot to be Rory -- aggressive, but a bit more carefree.

McIlroy lost a green jacket, but he gained admirers worldwide with his graciousness in defeat. In fact, he shared a plane with Schwartzel out of Augusta. And when Graeme McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, McIlroy was one of the first to Tweet his congratulations to his fellow Northern Irishman.

So he was asked Friday whether he'd just about had it being happy for other people.

"Yeah, definitely, definitely," he said. "I'd like to be happy for myself. No, I'm very happy. But, yeah, it would be nice to get a little piece of the action."

Thirty-six holes separate him from the action he wants most: holding up the Open trophy as his own.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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