BETHESDA, Md. — Rory McIlroy is becoming a master at these major championships.
At least on Thursday.
Showing no linger effects from a Sunday collapse at the Masters, the 22-year-old McIlroy made the toughest test in golf look like child’s play at Congressional with a 6-under 65 to build the biggest 18-hole lead at the U.S. Open in 35 years.
He missed only one green. He was the only player in the 156-man field without a single bogey. And just like that, McIlroy wound up atop the leaderboard after the opening round for the third time in the last four majors.
“It felt like quite a simple 65,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t do much wrong.”
The trouble has been finishing them off.
There were questions about how McIlroy would respond after the calamity of his most recent round in a major, when he squandered a four-shot lead at Augusta National with an 80 in the final round. He has been saying ever since that he got over that meltdown a week after the Masters. By the way he bounced back at the U.S. Open, maybe it’s time for everyone to believe him.
“I don’t know if it says that I’ve got a short memory,” McIlroy said. “I took the experience from Augusta, and I learned a lot from it. But, yeah, I mean you’re going into the U.S. Open. You can’t be thinking about what’s happened before. You’ve got to just be thinking about this week, and how you can best prepare, and how you can get yourself around the golf course.”
He took a route unlike any other player on an overcast day with a few light showers just as he finished up his round.
McIlroy was three shots clear of former PGA champion Y.E. Yang and Charl Schwartzel, the South African who captured the Masters two months ago at McIlroy’s expense.
“It’s a long way to go, but it’s nice to get yourself in contention,” Schwartzel said. “If you start falling too far behind on a tough golf course, things can get a little bit too far in front of you. You need to stay in there with a chance.”
British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen was at 69, joining a small group that included Sergio Garcia and Ryan Palmer, the lone American among the nine players who broke 70.
Defending champion Graeme McDowell had a 70.
Phil Mickelson played alongside McIlroy, and it must have looked familiar. The last time the U.S. Open came to Congressional in 1997, Mickelson played with Colin Montgomerie, who also shot 65.
“The game’s easy when you hit it straight and make every putt,” Mickelson said, referring to McIlroy. “It’s a wonderful game. No course is too tough when you hit like that. He played terrific. It was fun to watch — although I didn’t see much of it.”
McIlroy was walking down the center of most fairways, picking out the 100-yard and 150-yard yardage plates as his targets and hitting most of them. Mickelson was all over the map, hitting only five fairways. He hacked out of grass up his knees on one hole, and on another hit driver from under the trees to get back into play.
He wound up with a 74, a stunning score from where he was playing.
Mickelson wasn’t alone in his disappointment.
The top three players in the world — Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer — combined to go 10-over par. Donald struggled with his accuracy and couldn’t cope with the thick rough and shot 74 despite his birdie-birdie start. Kaymer also had a 74, while Westwood staggered to a 75, his worst opening round at the U.S. Open in 10 years.
“It’s not a very good score because I think the course is there for the taking,” said Westwood, who played in the morning. “Obviously, it’s a tough test, but I thought the golf course was set up great today. If you played well … I’m quite surprised that no one has gone out and shot 66, to be honest.”
Right about that time, McIlroy was on his way to the first tee, and he wound up doing one better.
It was exquisite golf, starting with a 3-wood he drilled into the corner of the dogleg on No. 12 that set up sand wedge to 6 feet for his first birdie. McIlroy really hit his stride around the turn — an 8-iron to 10 feet on No. 17, another beautiful drive and 8-iron into the 15 feet left of the pin on the 18th, and a lob wedge to 6 feet on No. 1.
The only time he flirted with bogey came on the 14th, when he went from deep rough into a bunker and had to hole a 15-foot putt for par, as long as any putt he made all day.
So pure was his golf that McIlroy, who tied a major championship record with a 63 in the British Open at St. Andrews last summer, began to think he could do it again. He laced a 3-iron over the water and onto the fringe to about 15 feet on the par-5 sixth and missed his eagle attempt, then came home in pars.
“It’s a major championship, and the toughest major championship of them all is the U.S. Open, and you can’t let any other thoughts get in your head,” McIlroy said. “You’re just trying to concentrate entirely on your game, and trying to get that ball around the course in as few strokes as possible.”
McIlroy followed that 63 at the British Open with a wind-blown 80 that knocked him out of contention. He held the lead at the Masters all the way until the final round. There’s no telling what awaits at Congressional.
He became the 10th player to start the U.S. Open at 65 or better, yet only two of them went on to win — Jack Nicklaus in 1980 at Baltusrol and Tiger Woods in 2000 at Pebble Beach. And of the previous eight players to hold a three-shot lead after the opening round — Jerry Pate in 1976 was the last one — only Ben Hogan in 1953 at Oakmont wound up with the trophy.
McIlroy understands that from St. Andrews.
“I learned that it’s a long way to go, even after that 63,” he said. “It’s hard to put thoughts out of your head about going on and winning and everything, but you’ve got to really stay in the present and stay in the moment. And I felt like I handled the second round at Augusta this year a lot better than I handled the second round at St. Andrews last year.”
What he hasn’t quite figured out is the lesson from the greatest champion of them all. Nicklaus invited McIlroy to lunch at his Florida golf club last year, and the kid grilled the Golden Bear about majors.
“He’s all about the majors,” McIlroy said. “He emphasized so much to me about not making mistakes. That was his big thing. He said people lost a lot more majors and gave them to him than he actually won. It was a good piece of advice to have.”