- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rory McIlroy pondered his back-nine collapse at the Masters earlier this year for a week, plucked some lessons for future use and then insisted the miserable Sunday was in his past.

It’s probably reasonable to believe him.

McIlroy yet again made a first-round splash at a major, cruising through a receptive Congressional Country Club with a 6-under 65 Thursday to take a three-shot at the U.S. Open in Bethesda.

“It was kind of like quite a simple 65,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t do much wrong and I think I hit 17 of 18 greens. I just kept giving myself opportunities for birdies, and when you can do that at the U.S. Open, it’s pretty good.”

No one in the 156-man field could argue with the native of Northern Ireland, who didn’t record a bogey on a course that was fairly favorable by the stingy standards of the U.S. Open.

Y.E. Yang, the 2009 PGA Championship winner, posted the morning’s best score with a 3-under 68. He was matched in the afternoon by Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.

Neither was as flawless as the 22-year-old McIlroy, whose efficiency created several short birdie opportunities and earned him the first-round lead at a major for the third time.

McIlroy matched a major record with a 63 at last year’s British Open before ballooning to an 80 on Friday. He also set the pace after the first three rounds of the Masters in April, and led at the turn Sunday before tentative play led to an unpleasant back nine and another 80.

There was no obvious psychological scarring in the two months since. The week after the Masters, he finished third at the Malaysian Open, and he came to Congressional two weeks removed from a fifth-place outcome at the Memorial.

If any questions still lingered, Thursday likely expunged them.

“I don’t know if it says that I just have a very short memory,” McIlroy said. “I took the experience from Augusta and I learned a lot from it. I feel like these good starts in the majors are very much tied to my preparation and how I prepare for them. You’re going into the U.S. Open. You can’t be thinking about what’s happened before.”

McIlroy opened at the 10th hole and needed just three holes to secure his first birdie, and went on to birdie Nos. 17 and 18, and quickly added another at No. 1.

Later, he barely left an eagle putt short at No. 6, and nearly got to 7 under with a close birdie miss at No. 7.

While hardly hospitable, Congressional was at least manageable  for a U.S. Open, anyway. A fifth of the field (33 players) shot even or better, with 21 men under par.

Lurking behind McIlroy were a handful of recent major winners, none of whom was particularly heralded when he collected his title. Schwartzel reversed an unremarkable start, shooting 4-under over the final seven holes.

Yang, ranked 110th when he won the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, played after a shower softened the course but did not force a delay. He recorded five birdies  including at each of the four par 3s  while making the most of the favorable conditions.

“I’m more impressed with the weather, actually,” Yang said through a translator. “It helped me a lot. It softened the green, which we were anticipating would be really hard after all they went through last week. I anticipate it won’t get any easier than today unless it starts to rain a lot.”

Six were tied for fourth at 2-under, including Sergio Garcia, who booked entry to the tournament through a qualifier last week. Also in the group was 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, who overcame consecutive bogeys to open his round and offered a preview of the opportunities McIlroy would exploit later in the day with birdies at two of the final three holes.

“The wind helped,” Oosthuizen said. “I think those last few holes, you’re going to see good scores around.”

Not everyone enjoyed as much success, including a group of the world’s top three players. Top-ranked Luke Donald and 2010 PGA Championship winner Martin Kaymer both shot 74. So did Phil Mickelson, who scrambled to get to 3-over despite missing 10 of 18 greens while playing in McIlroy’s group.

McIlroy didn’t have such problems. Instead, he placed himself in a position to quickly apply some hard-earned lessons in a major setting  a task which will possess a growing degree of difficulty as the week progresses.

“It’s not going to be that easy every day, I know that,” McIlroy said. “And everyone else knows that. It is nice when all the parts of your game are [solid] and you can put together a low round.”