- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2011

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.

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.

That possibility was within grasp a little more than two months ago. He wrapped up Saturday at the Masters with a two-shot lead and held a one-stroke edge at the turn. But he struggled on the back nine, wound up with an 80 and finished 10 behind winner Charl Schwartzel.

This time, there is optimism things will be different at this major thanks to experience forged through struggles at Augusta.

“It was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with a lead,” McIlroy 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 — a clear mind going out there. I just need to stick to my game plan.”

The only hint of slippage Saturday was a bogey at No. 10, yet even there McIlroy felt he made solid shots off the tee and from the bunker before under-reading a par putt. He responded immediately with a 12-foot birdie putt at No. 11, and he tacked on a birdie at No. 14 in immediate response to Yang’s first birdie of the day.

Thus, a seemingly inevitable development came to pass: McIlroy carries a commanding advantage into the final day. McIlroy has led after six of seven rounds at majors this year. The lone exception was his final-round implosion at Augusta, a trying afternoon that imparted substantial lessons to the precocious star.

Knowledge, if the week to date is any indication, that will surely be put to use Sunday.

“I’ve learned a lot from all these experiences, and I feel as if I’ve had I’ve had enough experiences leading majors and being up there that the time is right that I get my first one,” McIlroy said.