BETHESDA, Md. – It is hard to forget, the way these last two days have gone, that Rory McIlroy is still a kid, that he is tiny and 22 and that one of the greatest rounds in U.S. Open history was only the prelude to an afternoon spent watching "The Hangover Part II." There is little doubt now a new golfing star is on the rise and after years of the robotic approach of Tiger Woods, who spent his professional youth acting as if his fame and success was a burden, McIlroy's joy is easy to love.
He has stomped through Congressional Country Club as if the long, rolling fairways were some neighborhood muni. Everything was brilliant. And what made his 5-under par round on Friday, which put him at 11 under and made him the quickest ever to reach double-figures under par at a U.S. Open, so amazing is how simple it all looked. At times he seemed to walk up to the ball with barely a glance and whack it in the middle of the fairway. He did this again and again until the people in charge of the big, hand-operated leaderboards had to improvise to create double-digit numbers, for the piles of cards at their feet only went up to nine.
Then, when he was done, he stepped into an interview tent, sat down to his third press conference in four days, smiled and said: "It's funny to me, you know? It feels quite simple."
But he is just a kid. And in the middle of this historic second round, not long before he became the first golfer to ever to go 13-under at any point in a U.S. Open, he found himself waiting at the tee box on the 16th hole. All around him the crowd buzzed, wondering about this man-child who hits it long and putts smooth. The sun beat down. There was pressure everywhere. Only Rory McIlroy happened to hear an airplane. A jet pushed its engines before banking over the Potomac River on the final approach at National Airport. McIlroy turned his head up and like a little boy he watched the silver plane angle into its turn and then roar out of sight. A few moments later he threw a plastic wrapper at his caddy, J. P. Fitzgerald.
Then he walked up to the tee and smashed a drive straight down the fairway on his way to his fourth birdie of the day.
"I think he's just trying to enjoy it," his manager and friend Stuart Cage said after the round. "He's just trying to be a kid."
Only, as a kid, McIlroy is breaking all these older and stronger men. He was paired in the first two rounds with another rising young player, Dustin Johnson, and Phil Mickelson, who is the only superstar left now that Woods has disappeared. Earlier in the week everyone thought Mickelson would be the one to watch this weekend – the best bet to finally win that elusive U.S. Open. Instead he looked more like a beleaguered dad playing with his kids, watching wearily as McIlroy bounded across the course, racing up hills.
Until Friday afternoon, McIlroy's storyline was about a kid who built huge leads in major tournaments only to squander them somewhere along the way. This is the way of youth – dreaming too big, then wavering as the pressure grew heavy. So much has been made of his disastrous final round at The Masters, when everything began to fall apart on the 10th hole. But, like all good young athletes, he learned a lot from that day. After Friday's round, Fitzgerald talked about the reflection both he and McIlroy did following The Masters. Changes had to be made.
"We're a team," Fitzgerald said.
The biggest change might have been to add a bit of arrogance, the very thing Woods wore openly and McIlroy's sometimes mentor, Jack Nicklaus, displayed in a more subtle way. "I needed to be a little more cocky," McIlroy said after Friday's round. "I've tried to incorporate a little bit, just on the golf course. I just try and have a bit of an attitude, you know?"
But even a more cocksure McIlroy does not loom over his contemporaries. As he played this week, it was the taller, more recognizable Mickelson who drew the crowd's notice. Often McIlroy had walked past before people realized the 160-pound boy with freckles breezing by them was the golfer making history. On Thursday, after he finished yet another press conference, he sailed out of the room and into a mob of people in the hallway outside. The security men assigned to him panicked.
"I've lost my guy," one said.
McIlroy was standing right in front of him.
Now comes the latest test of youth, these final two days of the U.S. Open. And even the seemingly insurmountable lead is not assured of being safe. On Friday's 18th hole, the last of McIlroy's two-day coronation, he blew two strokes off his lead with a hurried drive into the trees on the left followed by an even hastier second shot that rolled into a pond.
He said that while lining up for the shot he could still hear the crowd murmuring about Mickelson's shot moments earlier from nearly the same area. Perhaps it would be a distraction, but McIlroy didn't care. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and he didn't want to wait.
It was the kind of thing he did when he blew The Masters. This time it turned into a double-bogey and his 13-under par became an 11-under par. And it left the smallest doubt hanging in the sticky late-spring air. A six-stroke lead is a lot to lose in two days of a U.S. Open. But it does remain in the hands of a kid heading out to watch "The Hangover Part II."
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