Road to greatness only 18 holes away for McIlroy

June 18, 2011 - 9:14 PM
US Open Golf

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts to missing a birdie putt on the 12th hole during the third round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament in Bethesda, Md., Saturday, June 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — He hasn't won one major yet, though that will surely change on Sunday unless Rory McIlroy has a meltdown of monumental proportion. One day the record will reflect that his march to greatness began with a U.S. Open title won in such a romp that by the final round his fellow pros had dropped any pretense of having a chance to beat him.

That he gave one away at the Masters will someday be little more than the answer to a trivia question. Give the kid a break on that one, because sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you can figure out how to win.

When most of the world last saw him at Augusta National, the enduring image was McIlroy with his face buried in the crook of his elbow after a tee shot on 13 sealed his fate. Soon that image will be replaced by one of him finishing a victory lap, all smiles as he walks up the 18th fairway with what could be the most dominating performance in Open history.

Don't expect him to shoot 80 in the final round the way he did at the Masters, not that it matters. McIlroy's lead is so big he could show up Sunday with just a 7-iron and a putter and still win this Open by three shots.

More than that, though, he's finally ready.

"The time is right," McIlroy said, "to go ahead and get my first one."

If he does, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland with the exquisite swing will have answered the biggest question any golfer faces. He'll have one major in his pocket with a lifetime of golf still to be played.

The next question then becomes, just how good will McIlroy be?

"He's potentially the next Tiger Woods," said defending Open champion Graeme McDowell. "He's that good.'

Forgive McDowell if he got a little carried away with himself. He's spent three days playing the kind of golf that won him the title at Pebble Beach last year only to find himself 14 shots out of the lead with little hope of doing anything but cashing a paycheck here.

But Woods may not be the target. He's injured, stuck on 14 majors, and in such a big slump that you wonder if he will ever win another.

Would anyone dare say Jack Nicklaus? The greatest player ever who won 18 majors and won his first in the U.S. Open also at the age of 22?

Of course someone would.

"If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack's record, there's your man," Padraig Harrington said. "Winning majors at 22 with his talent — he would have 20 more years so probably 100 more majors in him where he could be competitive. It would give him a great chance."

Quite a stretch, of course, even for someone with the prodigious talent of a player who drives it so straight and far he is nicknamed "BMW" by his fellow pros because he is the ultimate driving machine. McIlroy — as composed and likable as anyone his age could be — could only shake his head and laugh when told about Harrington's comments.

"Paddy, Paddy, Paddy," he said. "I'm still looking for my first one. That's all I can say."

Even if McIlroy never comes close to Nicklaus, though, the odds are he's going to win enough major titles to at least be in the conversation about the best players of his time. So far this year alone he's led in six out of seven rounds of the two majors, and last year he shot a 63 in the opening round of the British Open.

So far in this Open he's already set the record for lowest score after three rounds and, at 14-under, is further under par than any player has ever been.

"The more I put myself in this position the more comfortable I'm becoming," McIlroy said.

Some of the credit for that may go to Nicklaus himself. He took a liking to McIlroy when the two had lunch last year in Florida, and offered him some advice after the collapse that cost him the green jacket at the Masters.

The conversation was short, if only because McIlroy didn't take long to understand the message.

"He said you have to put pressure on yourself," McIlroy said. "There's going to be pressure from everyone else, so you've got to make sure that you really want it and you've got to go out there and expect to play well and put pressure on yourself to play well. And that's what he did. I took a lot from it."

There will be pressure Sunday even though McIlroy will tee off eight shots in front of Y.E. Yang. But McIlroy seems to finally be comfortable with it, and confident enough in his game that he will be able to handle it.

His father — who wasn't at the Masters — assured him of that over breakfast before Saturday's third round, and they will chat once again before he goes out to play the round that will almost surely change his life.

"From the experience that I had at Augusta I know now how to approach tomorrow, and I think that's the most important thing," McIlroy said. "I know what I need to do tomorrow."

Expect the victory lap to begin early for McIlroy.

The road to greatness is only 18 holes away.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg