McIlroy makes US Open looks like Kemper Open

June 19, 2011 - 10:29 PM
US Open Golf

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts to his putt on the 11th green during the final round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament in Bethesda, Md., Sunday, June 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Take nothing away from Rory McIlroy. The kid put on a clinic. He would have won this U.S. Open no matter where it was played, or over any surface save quicksand. He was that dominant.

Don't blame the U.S. Golf Association, either — at least not entirely. The blue blazers painstakingly map out every detail, from the length of every blade of grass to how many flavors of sports drinks are stashed in coolers alongside the tees for players. Yet even they can't do anything about the weather.

So let's quit automatically calling the U.S. Open "the toughest test in golf." This one was barely tougher than the old Kemper Open, which, not coincidentally, was played over the same Congressional course a quarter-century ago, albeit with a slightly different configuration.

What made the U.S. Open distinct once, not to mention compelling, is that players had to sweat for pars; here, they were sweating over birdies, much the same way they do most weeks on the PGA Tour. Of the 26 tournaments played on the tour so far, the field in two of them has already posted a higher stroke average than the 73 recorded here, including at the TPC course in San Antonio — hardly a major championship-caliber venue.

"I think the course did me a few favors this week, with the condition of it. If this golf course was firm and hard," McIlroy acknowledged with a grace that belies his 22 years, "I don't think anyone could have got to 16 under par."

Yet there was so much red on the leaderboard at Congressional by the end that it resembled an outbreak of measles. McIlroy shattered a handful of records, but for context, consider that the 8-under posted by runner-up Jason Day would have been good enough to clinch 20 of the last 25 U.S. Opens outright and tie the winner in four others.

Afterward, Day was asked how he would have replied if someone with a crystal ball told him he'd shoot 8-under at a U.S. Open and still lose by eight strokes.

"I would have said you're nuts. Definitely," he said.

The same question was put to Y.E. Yang, who finished at 6-under after playing with McIlroy in the final pairing both Saturday and Sunday.

"I wouldn't comment on what I thought about before the tournament," Yang said, speaking through an interpreter. "But afterward, I'd probably go back to that fortune teller quite a few times."

The only U.S. Open that provides anything close to a measuring gauge for McIlroy's win is Tiger Woods' 12-under victory at Pebble Beach in 2000. Yet it's worth noting that Woods was the only golfer under par in that one and that runner-up Ernie Els, at 3-over, was 15 shots behind. At Congressional, no less than 20 players bettered par.

"I think this is going to be a one-time deal. I don't think the USGA is letting anybody know how upset they were about how the scores were going," said Robert Garrigus, whose 6-under left him in a four-way tie for third.

"Next year at Olympic (in San Francisco), I think the winning score is probably going to be about 8-over. I don't think anybody is going to shoot under par next year and rightfully so. It's a U.S. Open."

Garrigus is probably right on both counts.

The USGA is unlikely to acknowledge any unhappiness over the way McIlroy shredded their handiwork. When the grumbling over low scores picked up late Saturday afternoon, Tom O'Toole, chairman of the USGA's championship committee called an impromptu news conference and blamed all the red numbers on the rain and humidity. Executive director Mike Davis, who took charge of setting up the Open courses in 2006, echoed those remarks late Sunday.

"I think in Washington, D.C., in June you expect humidity and not much wind. We never got the course to where it was bouncing and hard, maybe exactly the way we would have liked it, but this was still a very difficult test.

"This is still an outdoor sport," he added, "and for all that, the cream really rose to the top."

No argument there. Over four rounds, McIlroy hit four out of every five greens, two-thirds of the fairways, three-putted exactly once and landed in only five bunkers. He gave back only five strokes — three bogeys and one double — erasing any doubt whether the course had identified the best player. For that alone, the kid gets the final say.

"To have the lowest four-round total, the most amount of strokes under par, they're all really nice records," McIlroy said. "I said this on Friday after I came out and everyone was talking about the lowest 36 hole, the lowest this, the lowest that.

"I said it's nice, but I'll be able to enjoy it a little bit more if I have the trophy on Sunday," McIlroy said with the gleaming hardware on a table in front of him, "and it's worked out that way."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org