BETHESDA, Md. — Rory McIlroy looked every bit like a U.S. Open champion, even on a course that didn’t play like a U.S. Open.
As flawless as he’s been, not even the toughest test in golf would have been a match for him.
In the face of record scoring at Congressional, McIlroy stretched his lead for the third straight day with a 3-under 68 to set the 54-hole record at the U.S. Open and build an eight-shot lead going into the final round.
This time, history is on his side.
No one has ever blown more than a five-shot lead at the U.S. Open. No has ever lost any major when leading by more than six shots going into the final round. And over three days that produced a mind-boggling score of 14-under 199, no one looks close to the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland.
“You run out of superlatives to describe what he’s doing this week,” defending champion Graeme McDowell said.
For those curious whether he would crumble, as McIlroy did in the final round at the Masters when he lost a four-stroke lead and shot 80, he answered with a combination of smart play early and aggressive shots when he found his rhythm.
His only bogey came from a shot that was about 5 feet too long and tumbled into a back bunker on the par-3 10th. On the next hole, facing one of the most daunting shots on the course from deep rough, he hit a shot that covered the flag and settled 18 feet away. McIlroy pumped his fist when he made the birdie putt. It was a knockout punch to everyone else.
When he walked off the 18th green with a par, he was eight shots clear of Y.E. Yang and one round away from his first major.
“I wanted to catch up a little bit,” Yang said. “But at the same time, the player with the better shot, with the better putt, with the better composure is leading right now. So I have no regrets. Right now, the better player is leading.
“I think it’s actually a race for second place right now.”
His performance has been so inspiring that comparisons to Tiger Woods’ record-setting romp at Pebble Beach in 2000 gave way to questions whether McIlroy ultimately would be the one to challenge Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors.
“What is he, 22 years old? If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,” fellow Irishman Padraig 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.”
McIlroy, perhaps still wary of what happened at Augusta, is not ready to celebrate.
“Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” he said quietly as he shook his head and smiled. “I’m still looking for my first one. I’ve put myself in a great position to do that tomorrow, and then we’ll see what happens from there. It’s nice to have all these complimentary things said about you, but until you actually do these things, they don’t mean anything.”