Saturday 10 December 2016

Stunning McIlroy in a league of his own

KARL MacGINTY

Published 17/06/2011 | 10:41

Phil Mickelson peers over Rory McIlroy's shoulder on the 14th hole during the first round of the US Open at Congressional yesterday
Phil Mickelson peers over Rory McIlroy's shoulder on the 14th hole during the first round of the US Open at Congressional yesterday

TIGER WHO? Rory McIlroy exorcised harrowing memories of his final-day meltdown at the Masters, humbled Phil Mickelson and brought Congressional to its knees yesterday with one of the most stunning rounds in US Open history.

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McIlroy has made a habit of shooting spectacularly low rounds on the opening day at Major championships, including a record-equalling 63 in the British Open at St Andrews last July.

Yet the imperious six-under-par 65 he conjured up yesterday placed the 22-year-old Holywood wizard in a league of his own.

Early rain and overcast conditions left the Blue Course vulnerable, but this still is the US Open, allegedly the most gruelling of golf's Major championships. One suspects the rest of the field will pay from today as the USGA move to protect Congressional from McIlroy.

About 10 years ago, Tiger Woods was capable of dismantling US Open courses in this way, but not anymore. As McIlroy weaved his magic spells at Congressional, the injured American's absence was completely forgotten.

That final-round 80 which wrecked his dreams of victory at Augusta National in April cannot be consigned to the bin of history until McIlroy emerges from the white heat of Sunday afternoon at a Major with the trophy in his arms.

Yet so Tigeresque was his domination of the opposition, in particular his American playing companions Phil Mickelson (74) and Dustin Johnson (75), one cannot envisage anyone in this field capable of matching McIlroy playing at his pomp on this golf course.

Especially when he's holing putts from inside 12 feet with such confidence. McIlroy's recent sessions with US short-game guru Dave Stockton clearly have resulted in a putting routine capable of working under the unique pressure of the Major championship arena.

What an awful 41st birthday yesterday was for Mickelson, who had entered this championship with high hopes of winning a fifth Major title after enduring an unprecedented five runner-up finishes in his national championship.

From the moment Mickelson dumped his tee shot into the water on his way to an opening double-bogey five at the daunting par-three 10th, the off-colour American maestro's fumbling efforts out of jungle rough and trees just looked foolish.

At the end of an outrageously inspiring day in which he registered a sublime six birdies, McIlroy was three clear of his nearest challengers, South Korea's 2009 US PGA champion YE Yang and Charl Schwartzel, the South African who walked away from Augusta in his Green Jacket. And Sergio Garcia showed a welcome return to form to be among a group a shot further back along with British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen.

Coincidentally, the Spaniard led after day one at Carmoustie in 2007 when McIlroy, then an amateur, marked his Major debut with a sweet 68, the only bogey-free round of the first day.

In the nine Majors he's played since, McIlroy has registered three top-three finishes, but only a fool would bet against him etching his name under that of Graeme McDowell on the US Open trophy this weekend and handing his dad Gerry the greatest Father's Day gift of them all on Sunday.

McDowell and Padraig Harrington both showed precisely why they are Major champions as battle commenced in the 111th US Open less than 12 miles from the White House.

Judging by history, it's much easier to get re-elected as President than for the defending US Open champion to hold onto his title.

McDowell's prospects of joining Ben Hogan (1950 and '51) and Curtis Strange (1988 and '89) as the only two men since the war to win this gruelling tournament back-to-back certainly didn't look bright in recent months as he missed the cut in four of his last eight outings.

Yet the hero of last summer's US Open at Pebble Beach re-emerged at Congressional during a first-round 70.

After months of being reminded about his feats in 2010, McDowell, felt a switch click in his head on arrival at Congressional last weekend.

"Something happened when I arrived here on Sunday night -- it was like a sense of release.

"I really felt all the talking about the past year was done and I was ready to move forward," McDowell added.

"This morning I felt normal again. It felt like a regular Major championship. It didn't feel like I was defending anything."

McDowell's first tee shot of the day flew into a bunker and he would make bogey at out of plugged lie in a greenside trap. Otherwise, he drove the ball splendidly.

The 32-year-old polished off a birdie from six feet at the 233-yard second and moved into red figures with another at the long sixth before digging himself out of soft sand in greenside traps to save par at 10 and 11.

If McDowell has endured fraught times since spring, they pale alongside Harrington's recent torments as he grappled with neck and knee injuries and scrabbled desperately for form and confidence.

Like McDowell, the Dubliner failed to make the weekend at this year's US Masters, though in Harrington's case, it was his fourth missed cut in the last five Majors as he plummeted out of the elite top 50 in the world rankings.

Yet there's still fight in those 39-year-old bones. Harrington's level-par 71 suggests that if he can muster a little more self-belief or trust, he may indeed be able to add to that impressive haul of three Major titles, despite an untidy bogey six at the last, his ninth hole.

"It's never nice when you drop a shot on the last hole, but I'm pleased with the score," he said. "Though I missed a few birdie chances out there, I made some putts as well, so it's probably a fair reflection. I had a few wayward tee shots, but I hit my irons well and recovered well at times."

Yet Harrington's still waiting for "something to click into place" in his game.

"Things certainly are looking up for me on the course. I played lovely golf on Wednesday, for example, but I'm still not taking it out there (in tournament play). There are good signs, but I still feel I need a little more trust."

Reigning US PGA winner Martin Kaymer struggled along with the other members of a show group made up of the world's top three.

The German shot 74 to match that of golf's global No 1 Luke Donald, while pre-tournament favourite Lee Westwood opened with a 75.

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