Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

McIlroy lives up to hype

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BETHESDA, Md. --- Rory McIlroy spent his childhood daydreaming of sinking putts at the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open to beat Tiger Woods.

Rory McIlroy is the fourth consecutive golfer in his 20s to win a major, following peers Martin Kaymer, Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel into the exclusive fraternity.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Rory McIlroy is the fourth consecutive golfer in his 20s to win a major, following peers Martin Kaymer, Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel into the exclusive fraternity.

Well, in the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman did just that and then some without Woods even being in the field.

"Just growing up and watching him, watching him dominate at the Masters at '97, watching him dominate at Pebble in 2000 and St. Andrews," McIlroy said after his record-shattering performance, "I was just trying to go out there with the same intensity that he has, the same 'no lead is big enough.' That's all I was trying to do."

For four consecutive days, the young Ulsterman did it so thoroughly he strained everyone's vocabulary for superlatives. Hyperbole became quite the sport among players, media and fans -- and not without reason.

"I think this is what makes a difference -- there might be people capable of winning a major, but there's not too many people capable of dominating and running away from the field in a major," said Padraig Harrington. "I think Rory has set himself apart now in potential. Other guys have been in contention and failed to win majors. Rory has been lapping the field. So it is important for him to get a major, get across the line."

Suddenly McIlroy's name ceased being brought up in the context of Greg Norman and Sergio Garcia and found its way into the company of a handful of the game's titans in breathless analysis.

He's been heralded as the next Woods.

He was tapped as the man to catch Jack Nicklaus.

He has a swing as smooth as Sam Snead and repeatable as Ben Hogan.

He displayed the major resiliency of Tom Watson.

He flashed the charisma of Arnold Palmer.

He's an international ambassador the likes of Gary Player.

He is the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones.

The only guy with more than seven career majors he hasn't been associated with yet is Walter Hagen. Give everyone time and we'll come up with a way to make that leap.

Crazy talk? Perhaps. But it's only natural to make wild reaches in perspective when a gifted athlete fulfills great expectations with such grandiose flair. Look back at the Tiger analysis after the 1997 Masters (his fourth career victory) and it's not unprecedented.

Destined to win majors

Folks in his home country have been talking openly of McIlroy's "destiny" since he was a junior phenom the same way folks here anticipated Tiger. Living up to that kind of pressure so quickly says something.

"From a very early age, he was destined to go on and win majors," Harrington said. "I can tell you that there are a thousand kids like that at the moment somewhere in the world who will end up with miserable lives and have their dream not come true. Rory's life was set up for this. And he has delivered. Which is impressive."

Harrington gets a little carried away with the burden of golfing failure, but you can understand what he means.

McIlroy has been tapped as the heir apparent since he was a teenager. When he was still 19, Ernie Els stated he'd be No. 1, Mark O'Meara said he was "better than Tiger" at that age, Geoff Ogilvy called him "the best young player" he'd ever seen and Sergio Garcia saw himself "10 years ago" before the scars covered his potential.

That' a lot to live up to. And to deliver so quickly surprises even McIlroy.

"If you had asked me when I turned pro when I was 18, do you think you'd win a major by the time you're 22, I would have said no," he said. "The first time I realized it for myself was this time last year when Graeme (McDowell) won at Pebble."

He's been closing in on it ever since, but to achieve it on the heels of his Sunday anguish at Augusta makes his record-shattering performance more immense. There was not a lot of drama or worry during Sunday's coronation walk, but if there was ever a moment for pause it was on the 10th tee.

Congressional's dreaded par-3 over the water to a precarious ledge doled out a heaping share of misery on the field this week. Considering McIlroy's experience with the lead on the 10th tee at Augusta National two months ago, it was not the place for a stumble that might get the heart racing.

But instead of a ricochet into cabins, McIlroy flushed a 6-iron behind the flag and sucked it back to a few inches from an ace. He tapped in for birdie and a nine-shot lead that he knew "was his to lose."

"I thought that was probably the biggest point in the round because (Y.E.) Yang had just stuck it in there close," he said. "After I got past the 11th, I sort of knew I would have had to have done something really, really stupid to not win."

The embracing roars from the more than 20,000 people packed around that amphitheater beneath the massive clubhouse built steadily to a staggering crescendo as the ball inched closer and closer to the cup. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel watched from across the pond at the 18th green and the moment raised goosebumps much like his own clinching experience at the Masters.

"That was a pretty decent roar that went up there," Schwartzel said. "It was very spectacular, a bit of history there, and it's always nice to watch it."

Changing of the guard

McIlroy is the fourth consecutive golfer in his 20s to win a major, following peers Martin Kaymer, Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel into the exclusive fraternity.

With Woods absent due to injury and his game in relative disarray, this has the distinct feel of a changing of the guard. Especially with 23-year-old Jason Day posting his second consecutive runner-up finish and third top-10 in his first three passes at the majors.

We've been searching for 14 years for a true rival to step up and challenge Tiger Woods. What we might have found this week is his successor.

"I didn't have a chance to play with Tiger when he was in his real prime, and this guy is the best I've ever seen, simple as that," said McDowell. "He's great for golf. He's a breath of fresh air for the game and perhaps we're ready for golf's next superstar. And maybe Rory is it."

You can't argue that he didn't look the part.


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