Bethesda, Md. With each remarkable round, with each record-setting performance, Rory McIlroy is making that Masters debacle seem like a distant memory.
A U.S. Open title could erase it altogether.
McIlroy moved closer to his first major Saturday at Congressional by stretching his lead for the third straight day with a 3-under 68 to set the 54-hole record at the U.S. Open — a mind-boggling 14-under 199 — and build an eight-shot lead going into the final round.
That’s twice the size of his lead going into the last day at Augusta National.
And this time, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman says he has learned from his mistakes.
“At Augusta, it was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with the lead,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to be defensive, aggressive, go for it, not go for it. But now, I know what I need to do, which is a great thing to have. I have a clear mind going out there (today), and I just need to stick to my game plan.”
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 on a rain-softened course, no one looks to be close to McIlroy.
“It’s just phenomenal,” defending champion Graeme McDowell said. “You run out of superlatives to describe what he’s doing this week. He’s decimating a field.”
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 7-iron 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.”