You can't hold these kids back any longer. In combined age, Rory McIlroy (22) and Jason Day (23) are barely older than Phil Mickelson (41), but they've been visible in enough majors to convince you that, soon enough, they're going to break through and win one — and probably a bunch more after that.
In fact, you get the sense they could serve as each other's foil for the next couple of decades, following in the cleat marks of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Jack and Tom Watson and, more recently, Lefty and Tiger Woods. They're that good.
Sunday at Congressional, McIlroy, the Northern Irishman, and Day, the Aussie, will be playing in the final two groups in the U.S. Open. Rory, shattering records left and right, is 14-under after his third-round 68. Day, meanwhile, climbed into contention Saturday with a bogey-free 65 and is eight strokes back and tied for third. We're looking at a ground shift here, folks. I mean, let's face it, these two figure to be fixtures in the game for years to come.
"Obviously, the next generation is starting to kick up now," Day said, "and he's the one leading it. ... The way he's playing out there, it's almost Tiger-esque."
No fooling. Not even Woods, after all, has been 14-under in the Open. And while some, like defending champ Graeme McDowell, will note that rains have defanged the course and turned it into "the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic ... target golf ... not really a U.S. Open," McIlroy has been tearing up it like no one else. His floor so far — Saturday's 68 — is higher than most players' ceilings.
The budding McIlroy-Day rivalry first came to the fore at the Masters, where they played together for the first three rounds. Rory, you may recall, came unglued on Sunday, shot an 80 and finished tied for 15th; but Jason stayed strong, closed with a 68 and got a piece of second behind Charl Schwartzel.
Schwartzel, the latest in the South African line, is another one, by the way, another 20-something taking part in this coup d'etat, this overthrow of the Woods/Mickelson regime. So is Martin Kaymer, the German who won the PGA last August, and Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who ran off with the British Open last July. But Sunday the stage will belong to McIlroy and Day; Louis (even), Charl (1-over) and Martin (3-over) simply have too much ground to make up.
"It's a great time for golf," Rory said. "And it's great to see all these young guys breaking through."
(It's a particularly great time for international golf. But that's a column for another day.)
Obviously, this is McIlroy's Open to lose. And about the only reason the trophy hasn't already been conceded to him is because of that bloody Sunday at Augusta. But Rory is convinced it won't happen again, and he's looking forward to his mulligan.
"The more I put myself in this position," he said, "the more and more comfortable I'm becoming. I feel as if I've had enough experiences leading majors and being up there that the time is right to go ahead and get my first one. ... At Augusta, it was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with the lead. 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 tomorrow, and I just need to stick to my game plan."
Saturday's round wasn't quite as ho-hum as the first two. He had to scramble some at the start, including getting up and down from 90 yards on No. 3 after a wayward tee shot. That great escape — and another slightly less spectacular one on No. 4 — got him going. Or as he put it: "I found my rhythm and started to play some really good golf."
So good that he made only one bogey, just his second mishap in 54 holes. He even birdied 11, a 490-yard bear of a par-4 that's arguably the hardest hole on the course.
Too bad McIlroy won't be partnered with Day in the fourth round. That would be something to see, our national championship getting hijacked by the Young and the Restless. Alas, Rory will keep company with company of Y.E. Yang (6-under) again, and Jason will be paired with Lee Westwood (5-under after consecutive rounds of 68 and 65). It'll be up to Yang (39) and Westwood (38) to repulse the youth rebellion.
About the only thing the budding McIlroy-Day rivalry needs, it seems, is some good old-fashioned mutual loathing. "He's a hard guy to hate," Day said. "He's a really, really great bloke, and I really enjoy playing with Rory."
Maybe that will change, over time, as they wrestle over trophies. At their age, all they've got is time.
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