by Jeff Skinner
As Rory McIlroy was making his way around Congressional Country Club he was given a conquering hero’s welcome at each hole. The patrons at this 111th U.S. Open Championship realized they were seeing history made before their eyes. Rory’s stellar play put him in a place where no man has ever tread. He was the first player ever to reach thirteen under par at an Open and he topped that when he moved to fourteen under par. Yes, he has set many records and his eight shot lead looks insurmountable, but he’s the first to say he still has to go out and win it.
His Masters collapse has been referenced all week and many expected Rory to stumble at some point as the pressure builds at the Open. Yesterday McIlroy showed that he is a different player that he was a few years ago when he was trumpeted as “the next Tiger Woods.” The test would come when McIlroy hit a wayward shot or made an error on the course. We all were waiting to see how McIlroy would react to misfortune. Would the pressure overwhelm him? Would he crack and fall apart allowing his pursuers back in the tournament?
His first test came at the par four third hole yesterday when he sprayed his driver wide right in the rough. He had a shot at the green if he hit a low, fading shot that could run up onto the green. I watched Robert Karlsson pull off the same shot on Saturday and he then chipped in for birdie. So the shot was there for Rory. It was a low percentage shot but certainly it was possible. An eighteen year old Rory would have tried it. Last year I bet McIlroy would have given it a go but this is a different Rory. This is a player that has been in the pressure cooker that is a major championship. With his scars from The Masters well healed he chose the high percentage shot and laid up short of the green and didn’t risk running into the deep greenside rough or the deeper greenside bunkers. He took the big number out of the equation and showed he had confidence in his short came. His confidence was rewarded when his wedge spun to four feet and he made the putt for par. It wasn’t a birdie but it was his most significant shot of the week. He had weathered his first test and came through unscarred. As he left the green my brother and I commented that he had survived his first critical test of the day. We saw a different Rory as he walked past us. This was a mature golfer that knew what he was doing and was confident in his game and himself.
After the 1960 U.S. Open when Arnold Palmer had come from seven strokes back to win, Ben Hogan had some insightful words. While Palmer’s comeback was historic, Hogan said that a young Jack Nicklaus would have won if he “knew what he was doing.” Well that was Rory before his Masters meltdown. This Rory McIlroy, the one about to make more history at the U.S Open, now knows what he is doing. We all knew he had the swing and the physical skills to win a major but it takes more than that. It takes mental discipline that can only be learned by being in the hunt on those pressure packed Sunday afternoons.
After Saturday’s round Rory’s fellow Irishmen made those Tiger comparisons again. Graeme McDowell called him the next Tiger and Paddy Harrington said forget Tiger; it will be Rory that breaks Jack’s record of eighteen majors. When that comment was related to Rory he shook his head, smiled and said “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy…I’m still looking for my first.” Well, that day his here. Today Rory gets his first major in historic fashion. Winning the U.S. Open at twenty two years old will change his life but not his character. He’ll be that same, smiling kid but just a bit different because now, he knows what he is doing.