BETHESDA, Md. — The proof of Rory McIlroy’s remarkable resiliency was the silver trophy at his side and the pages of a record book that he changed during four mind-boggling days at the U.S. Open.
For his father, it was a phone call right after a most crushing collapse at Augusta National two months ago.
Poised to fulfill his potential and become the youngest Masters champion since Tiger Woods, McIlroy shot 80 in a final round that was painful to watch. Gerry McIlroy, who worked three jobs so his son could pursue his passion, was home in Northern Ireland when the phone rang some 20 minutes after it was over.
“I said, Rory, are you OK, son?’ Because you always fear for your kids,” the father said Sunday. “And he says, ‘Dad, um, I have no problem with it at all. I hit a few bad shots. And if you play golf, then you’ll understand that.'”
The father had his country’s flag draped over a green shirt during a momentous celebration at Congressional on Sunday.
McIlroy, the 22-year-old who can make golf look easy even in the toughest of circumstances, buried that Masters memory the way he buried his competition in a breathtaking performance filled with the promise of more majors to come.
“I felt like I got over the Masters pretty quickly. I kept telling you guys that, and I don’t know if you believed me or not. But here you go,” McIlroy said, gesturing to the shiny prize on the table. “Nice to prove some people wrong.”
Four days of flawless golf finally ended when McIlroy polished off a 2-under 69 to shatter U.S. Open records that simply defy logic at the major known as the toughest test in golf.
The combined scores of the last 10 U.S. Open champions were 14-under par.
McIlroy was 16 under.
He finished eight shots ahead of Jason Day, whose score of 8-under 276 would have been enough to win 26 of the last 30 U.S. Opens.
“It’s just phenomenal golf,” Day said. “He lapped the field, and for such a young age, how mature he is. Golf right now is in a really, really good spot where Rory McIlroy is right now.”
McIlroy nearly holed an impossible putt from the front of the 18th green to within a foot, and it was then he finally saw his father. He smiled and shook a clenched fist, and after tapping in for par, walked off the green and into his arms.
“Happy Father’s Day,” McIlroy told him.
It was the second straight U.S. Open title for the tiny country of Northern Ireland, and defending champion Graeme McDowell walked back across the bridge to the 18th green to embrace the new winner.
“You’re a legend,” McDowell told him.
Not many would dispute that now, not after a week like this.
Golf had been looking for a star ever since Woods’ personal life and formidable game spiraled out of control 18 months ago. This was supposed to be the “U.S. Wide Open” because parity had taken over.
McIlroy, who goes to No. 4 in the world, now stands above everyone going into the final two majors of the year.
“Nothing this kid does ever surprises me,” McDowell said. “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen. I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger when he was in his real pomp, and this guy is the best I’ve ever seen. Simple as that. 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,” he said, “Rory is it.”
This was more than just one major. It was the way McIlroy decimated the field with a golf swing so pure that he made had only four holes worse than par all week.
McIlroy finished at 268 to break the U.S. Open record by four shots. That record 12-under par by Woods at Pebble Beach? McIlroy matched it in the second round and kept right on rolling.
“I couldn’t ask for much more, and I’m just so happy to be holding this trophy,” McIlroy said. “I know how good Tiger was in 2000 to win by 15 in Pebble. I was trying to go out there and emulate him in some way. I played great for four days, and I couldn’t be happier.”
He even tried to be like Woods in the final round, showing no mercy on those chasing him.
McIlroy opened with an 8-foot birdie and never let anyone get closer to him the rest of the day. Even when he made his first bogey of the final round at No. 12 that trimmed his lead back to eight shots with six holes to play, he wasn’t happy. Woods kept his focus at Pebble Beach by trying not to drop a single shot. That’s what the kid was trying to do.
“I was trying to go out and trying to make no mistakes, and really not give anyone a chance to catch me,” McIlroy said.
When he arrived for his press conference, he took a picture of the silver U.S. Open trophy on the table and posted it on Twitter with two references that said it all: Winning. Bounceback.
“Going back to Augusta this year, I felt like that was a great opportunity to get my first major. It didn’t quite work out,” McIlroy said. “But to come back straightaway at the U.S. Open and win, that is nice. You can always call yourself a major champion, and hopefully after this, I can call myself a multiple major champion.”
Since the Masters began in 1934, McIlroy is the second youngest major champion next to Woods.
Day, a 23-year-old from Australia, closed with a 68 and was runner-up for the second straight major. Unlike the Masters, however, Day didn’t have a chance. No one did this week.
McIlroy opened with a three-shot lead, stretched it to six shots after 36 holes and eight shots going into the final round. No one got any closer over the final 18 holes.
Tributes poured in throughout the steamy afternoon outside the nation’s capital — first from the players he beat, then from Jack Nicklaus and ultimately from Woods.
“What a performance from start to finish,” Woods said in a statement. “Enjoy the win. Well done.”
Nicklaus invited McIlroy to lunch last year in Florida and talked to him about how to close out tournaments. He apparently wasn’t listening when he took a four-shot lead into the final round of the Masters, only to implode on the back nine and shoot 80.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen again, and it hasn’t,” Nicklaus said by telephone to NBC Sports. “I think this kid’s going to have a great career. I don’t think there’s any question about it. He’s got all the components. He’s got a lot of people rooting for him. He’s a nice kid. He’s got a pleasant personality.
“He’s humble when he needs to be humble, and he’s confident when he needs to be confident.”
Just think: If he had avoided the collapse at Augusta National, he could be headed to Royal St. George’s for the British Open with the first two legs of the Grand Slam.
Among the records he set in a U.S. Open unlike any other:
— The 72-hole record at 268.
— The 54-hole record at 199.
— The 36-hole record at 131.
— Most under par at any point at 17 under.
— Quickest to reach double digits under par — 26 holes when he got to 10 under in the second round.
McIlroy also tied Woods’ record for a six-shot lead at the halfway point, and he joined Lee Janzen in 1993 and Lee Trevino in 1968 as the only players to post all four rounds in the 60s.
Some of that had to do with Congressional, which was softened by rain and cloud cover. The USGA did nothing to try to protect par, moving tees forward to tempt players to take on some risk. The result was a whopping 32 rounds under par on Sunday. The previous record of 18 final rounds under par was at Baltusrol in 1993.
But there is no denying that one guy played far better than anyone else — eight shots better. McIlroy became the first player since Woods in 2002 at Bethpage Black to go wire-to-wire in the U.S. Open without ties, and his best might still be ahead of him.
“I think he’s still growing, and it’s just scary to think about it,” said Y.E. Yang, who played in the final group the last two days.
Amid the celebration of McIlroy came growing concern about the state of American golf. For the first time since the Masters began in 1934, Americans have gone five majors without winning. They were on the verge of being shut out of the top three for the fourth time in the last five majors until Yang made bogey on the last hole for a 71.
That put the South Korean into a tie for third with PGA Tour rookie Kevin Chappell (66), Robert Garrigus (70) and Lee Westwood (70).
“It says, I think, that the Americans struggle a little bit,” PGA champion Martin Kaymer said. “Since Tiger has been on a — how you do say? — little down, nothing has really happened. We’ve just become so much stronger.”
The game also is getting much younger.
McIlroy became the fourth straight player in his 20s to win a major, the longest such streak since 1897.
The drama Sunday was not who would win, but by how many.
There was simply no catching McIlroy, not when he was staked to an eight-shot lead while playing flawless golf, not on a soft course that allowed him to hit wedge into six greens on the front nine.
With chants of “Let’s go, Ror-eee” coming from the massive gallery, and teenagers climbing pine trees to see golf’s bright new star, McIlroy came out firing with a wedge that settled 8 feet from the pin for an opening birdie.
Twice when he faced putts from across the green, he holed 7-footers for par. He stretched his lead to 10 shots, and when he made the turn, his tee shot on the par-3 10th rolled down the slope and stopped inches away from an ace.
The way his week had been going, it was shocking not to see it fall.