With an eight-stroke lead at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy craves first major win

Has an event-record 199 after three rounds

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, watches his drive from the fifth tee during the third round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament in Bethesda, Md., Saturday, June 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, watches his drive from the fifth tee during the third round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament in Bethesda, Md., Saturday, June 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A comfortable, ever-growing lead at the U.S. Open ensured the big picture wasn’t quite what Rory McIlroy wanted to occupy his mind with Saturday.

Instead, aims modest in scope yet anything but in terms of history were unfurled during another effective jaunt around Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club.

“The big goal I set for myself today was to try to get to 15 [under],” McIlroy said. “Didn’t quite achieve it, but I don’t mind.”

Nor should he.

There were no signs of a McIlroy meltdown in the third round as he became the first player in Open history to reach 14-under. His workmanlike 68 left him with an event record 199 after 54 holes (breaking Jim Furyk’s 2003 record by a stroke) and a whopping eight-shot lead, a seemingly insurmountable edge entering the final day.

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts after making his birdie putt on the 11th hole during the third round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament in Bethesda, Md., Saturday, June 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts after making his birdie putt on ... more >

Y.E. Yang remained in second place for the third straight day, collecting 15 pars en route to a 1-under 70 to reach 6-under. Under the usual U.S. Open conditions, such an grinding effort is downright stupendous.

Not Saturday.

Pelted again with overnight rain, Congressional was even more receptive to low scores than earlier in the week. More than a third of the field — 26 of 72 players — shot under par Saturday, with Jason Day and Lee Westwood posting 65s to enter the final day tied for third.

American Robert Garrigus (68) joined them at 5-under, another typically stellar figure McIlroy’s mastery rendered virtually irrelevant.

No 54-hole leader in Open history has ever lost more than a five-shot advantage. No one in major history has squandered an edge greater than six strokes. And the biggest comeback on the final day of a U.S. Open was Arnold Palmer’s seven-shot rally in 1960.

McIlroy’s peerless play has offered little reason to believe his rewriting of the tournament’s records will extend into ignominy. He’s made 15 birdies and an eagle against just one bogey and one double bogey, and while his eight-shot lead isn’t a record — Tiger Woods was up 10 at Pebble Beach in 2000 — it hardly seems to matter.

“The way he’s playing out there, it’s almost Tiger‑esque,” Day said. “It’s unbelievable how good he’s playing. Obviously to have the lead that he has in U.S. Open is pretty ridiculous and at such a young age. Obviously the next generation is starting to kick up now and he’s the guy that’s leading it.”

Ah, Woods. The former world No. 1 and 14-time major champion’s injury-related absence was a defining cloud hanging over the event when it began Thursday morning. Such a thought seems almost comical now. McIlroy, the self-assured 22-year-old, flipped the script from the start and has yet to relent.

Rory is out there making it look incredibly easy,” defending U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell (even) said Saturday after shooting 69.

McIlroy was methodical (if not terribly memorable) as he navigated the front nine Saturday, birdieing Nos. 5 and 9 to inch ever closer to his first major title.

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