BETHESDA, Md. — The manner in which Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open made comparisons with Tiger Woods inevitable.
Not since Woods’ historic 15-shot win at Pebble Beach in 2000 has anyone crushed the competition at a U.S. Open. McIlroy’s performance was so stunning at Congressional that only four of his 72 holes were worse than par, he broke the scoring record by four shots and finished at an astounding 16-under 268.
Such a score is rare at the other three majors. It’s unfathomable for a U.S. Open.
But there was more than just his golf.
The buzz around the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland made this feel like the 1997 Masters.
That was a watershed moment in sports, signaling the arrival of Woods. He brought a breathtaking blend of power and putting, seized control of the tournament on the second day, demoralized Colin Montgomerie in the third round and won by 12 shots with a record score to become the youngest Masters champion.
Woods wasn’t at Congressional, but at times it felt like it.
The energy picked up late Friday morning, right after McIlroy holed out a pitching wedge for eagle on the par-4 eighth to become only the fifth player in U.S. Open history to reach double-digits under par.
The difference was it took him only 26 holes, and he was just getting warmed up. When he stood on the 10th tee, thousands of fans stood shoulder-to-shoulder from the tee all the way up the hill to the clubhouse. They crowded onto the verandah at the clubhouse, and there were so many fans leaning against the railing on the balcony they looked like passengers on a cruise ship coming into port.
All this to see a Boy Wonder who just might be the future of golf.
Golf might be ready for a new star, especially considering the personal failures of Woods and the health problems that cloud his future. McIlroy brings a killer instinct to the course, yet already has shown he can lose as well as he can win.
Leave it to a kid, however, to preach patience.
As he was on his way to posting the first sub-200 score over 54 holes in a U.S. Open — 14-under 199 — in the third round, Padraig Harrington declared him as being the player perhaps best suited to chase Jack Nicklaus’ benchmark of 18 professional majors.
“If you’re going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,” Harrington said. “Winning majors at 22 with his talent, he would have 20 more years … where he could be competitive. It would give him a great chance.”
Upon hearing this, McIlroy bowed his head and said quietly into the microphone with playful condemnation, “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy.”
Then came Sunday, when he was as relentless as ever, stretching his lead to as many as 10 shots, and his score as low as 17 under. Graeme McDowell, who grew up hearing about and then appreciating the skill of McIlroy, said he was the “best player I’ve ever seen.”
These are the expectations that will follow McIlroy to Royal St. George’s for the British Open, to Atlanta for the PGA Championship, and to every major he plays for a long time, if not the rest of his career.
His name is on the U.S. Open roll of champions with Woods, a three-time winner. For now, that’s where the similarities end.
The comparisons are mainly a product of youth, skill and delivering on potential. In his first trip to America as a pro, McIlroy’s peers figured it was only a matter of time before he won the biggest events and rose to No. 1. He was that good, his swing that simple and pure, his talent simply too much to ignore.
McIlroy became the second-youngest player to win a major since the Masters began in 1934, trailing Woods in that 1997 Masters by about 10 months. That’s why there is so much excitement about his future, and rightfully so.
However, this was his 10th major as a pro. Woods won in his professional debut at the majors.
The one question about McIlroy, aside from his putting, was his ability to finish. For someone with so much talent, this was only his third career victory in 107 starts in European and PGA Tour events.
Woods already had won 31 tournaments, including five majors, after his 107 starts in European and PGA Tour sanctioned tournaments. Four of those majors were won in a span of 294 days, an achievement that might rank among the most difficult to match.
“When you win a major quite early in your career, everyone is going to draw comparisons,” McIlroy said. “It’s natural.”
McIlroy does not shy away from the expectations, although he has amazing perspective for one so young.
“It’s nice that people say that ‘He could be this’ or ‘He could be that’ or ‘He could win 20 major championships,'” he said. “But at the end of the day, I’ve won one. I obviously want to add to that tally. But you can’t let what other people think of you, influence what you have to do. You have to just go out there, work hard, believe in yourself.”
There’s another reason for all the excitement.
Golf has been searching for a star since the downfall of Woods, who has not won any tournaments since his personal life and image were shattered in November 2009, and whose health is such now that no one knows when he’ll play his next event, much less his next major.
Martin Kaymer won the PGA Championship and eventually rose to No. 1 for two months. Lee Westwood now has five top 3s in his last 12 majors. Luke Donald is still No. 1 in the world and playing some of the best and most consistent golf.
None have been as dynamic as McIlroy, on and off the golf course.
By winning the U.S. Open, he has been atop the leaderboard in a major for seven of the last eight rounds, and he has been in the lead at some point in the last three majors — he lost a four-shot lead in the final round at the Masters with that well-documented 80, and he briefly shared the lead at Whistling Straits at the PGA Championship until missing a 20-foot birdie putt on the last hole to finish one behind.
Who knows what the rest of the summer will hold for McIlroy. But for now, it’s hard not to imagine that if not for that 80 at Augusta, McIlroy would be headed to the British for the third leg of the Grand Slam.