Tuesday 25 July 2017

Can anyone stop McIlroy?

Rory the runaway leader at Congressional as he follows up first day 65 with a sizzling 66

Karl MacGinty

IT must have been like this to see Van Gogh or the young Mozart at work.

The glory of Rory McIlroy's history-making feats over the past two days at Congressional lies not in statistics, spectacular though they may be, but in the sublime majesty of his play.

This young genius from Holywood, Co Down, has driven the golfing world into rhapsody with his record-shattering performance so far at the 111th US Open.

Perhaps Brandt Snedeker, the American PGA Tour-winner who figured among McIlroy's 'closest' pursuers on two-under, put it best when he said: "I played really well to shoot 70 today, really well. Yet Rory probably has more talent in his little pinkie than I have in my entire body."

The history books back up Snedeker's modest assertion.

By adding a second-round 66 to Thursday's opening 65, McIlroy recorded the lowest score (131) for 36-holes at the game's most gruelling championship.

With a breathtaking eagle at eight yesterday, he became just the fifth man in history to reach 10-under at the US Open ... and by doing it in a mere 26 holes, he's the quickest to achieve this feat in history.

McIlroy then reached the lowest-ever score recorded against par, 13-under, at this august event with his fifth birdie of the day at 16.

Even a double-bogey at the last failed to quell the wave of excitement which is expected to propel this phenomenal 22-year-old into the weekend with the biggest lead in US Open history.

McIlroy hasn't just forgotten that harrowing final day meltdown at last April's US Masters ... he's come back harder and stronger from it.

To be perfectly frank, he has an aura of invincibility worn only by the game's greatest players, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, on a golf course which McIlroy and, importantly, his rivals this weekend, well know sets-up perfectly for him.

If golf's new crown prince led the rest of the field a merry dance, outscoring his feted, if wayward playing companion Phil Mickelson by a whopping 12 strokes over the first two rounds, he sat stone-faced on the podium afterwards as his tournament records were read out to the world's media.

"These records, they're nice, but they don't really mean anything until the end of the tournament," he said calmly. "If I can look back with a trophy in my hand, then it would be nice."

McIlroy has used the Augusta experience to steel himself against the pressure which builds near to breaking point on Sunday at the Majors. "Since Augusta," he explained. "I've done just a little change to my attitude and my demeanour on the course. I needed to be a little more cocky, a little more arrogant on the golf course, and to think a little bit more about myself.

"I just try and have a bit of an attitude, you know? When I get into these positions, I have to make sure I don't get ahead of myself and start playing defensively. I have to still play aggressively to the targets that I pick.

"That's the main thing. Even if you get four, five or six ahead of the field, or whatever, you must always ensure you're trying to keep going, to get seven, eight or 10 ahead."

The Masters is so profoundly forgotten that McIlroy saw no irony whatsoever ever in his choice of movie to watch last night, 'Hangover 2'.

For the second day in succession, McIlroy offered the 35,000 fans cramming Congressional a masterclass in shot-making and, when required, self-discipline.

The 22-year-old Ulsterman forgot to bring a ball-marker with him to the first tee yesterday morning and was deeply grateful when a volunteer marshal pressed a shiny quarter into his hand. Yet McIlroy still had his wits very much about him.

Any plans by the USGA for the greens to play harder on Friday were stymied by Mother Nature, when she doused the golf course with torrential rain overnight, which played into the youngster's sublimely gifted hands.

McIlroy also saw the downside on he first hole when his opening tee shot drifted into the rough to the right of the fairway and he really had to muscle his ball out of the wet, cloying grass to 25 feet for a two-putt par.

He got the message, missing just two more fairways all day, to the left of the par-five sixth and at 18, where it led to McIlroy's first dropped-shots of the championship when his second from the rough ran into the lake to the left of the green.

McIlroy two-putted from 11 feet for a closing double-bogey six at that last hole, stirring memories of the six Tiger took at 18 on Friday at Pebble Beach in 2000 after hitting his tee shot into the biggest hazard of them all, the Pacific Ocean. Woods still led by a record six strokes that evening and went on to win by 15 shots on 12-under, the biggest victory margin at the Majors.

That double on 18 did absolutely no psychological damage to McIlroy and, judging by his demeanour afterwards it won't dent his confidence either.

Indeed, short game guru Dave Stockton, the former US Ryder Cup captain and PGA Champion, who has worked with McIlroy since the Masters, said "that double-bogey could be good for him" as McIlroy doesn't have to worry about keeping a clean sheet at the weekend. "It'll also make him pissed," added Stockton with a grin.

"Rory has the full package," he insisted. "What did he miss, five greens in two days at the US Open, you have to be special to do that ... and his putting has been really impressive too. He's in the elite class."

McIlroy holed a 25-footer on the fourth green for his first birdie of the second round. Once the ball was rolling, he seemed to pick up shots with spectacular ease. Forced to lay-up out of the rough at six, McIlroy hit a wedge to five feet and rolled in the putt for his birdie four, followed soon after by that majestic eagle from the fairway at eight.

That effort was both sublime and almost surreal. McIlroy hit a wedge 144 yards right over the pin and it pitched on the upslope about 16 feet from the hole, pausing momentarily before trickling down towards the hole.

It took 10 seconds before the ball disappeared into the cup. As the excitement of the gallery built into a deafening roar, McIlroy stood in mid-fairway with both arms held aloft, his smile almost as wide as the fairway.

On a more sober note, the most important putt of his tournament so far came at 11, where McIlroy holed-out from eight feet for par after hitting his approach into the left trap. He punched the air twice after that one.

Superlative approaches set up further birdies at 14 and 16. McIlroy described the 190-yards, six-iron to six feet at 14 and the four-iron into 10 feet at the par-five 16th as "the purest shots I've hit this week, they were nice."

Caddie JP Fitzgerald, at the Ulsterman's side in Augusta, sounded a note of sanity amid the hyperbole stirred by McIlroy's stunning efforts over the opening 36 holes. "This guy obviously is capable of amazing things, but it's just halfway. It's only Friday."

As he eased to 12-under through 16, McIlroy drew level with the all-time lowest score to par at the US Open. Then he carved his own niche in history at 13-under with his fifth birdie of the day at 17.

The double at 18 came after a tuft of grass got between McIlroy's four-iron and the ball in the rough, causing the club to turn over slightly and send the shot bounding left, off the steep bank of the green and into the water.

Yet even a closing double-bogey couldn't throw a wet blanket over such a happy and historic occasion as McIlroy stepped closer to becoming the youngest US Open winner since the legendary Bobby Jones.

Meanwhile, US Open champion Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington were tied on even-par for the tournament as dangerous weather brought play to a halt mid-afternoon.

McDowell had just birdied 17 and was one-over through eight holes when the weather closed in, while Harrington had completed the front nine in even-par. Shane Lowry was five-over through 13 holes and, at six-over on aggregate, was two outside the projected cut mark.

YE Yang, Korea's 2009 PGA Champion moved to five-under, within six strokes of McIlroy's lead, as he completed the front nine in two-under.

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