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They were more fortunate than the morning players, who stared at the large scoreboard as they walked to the 18th green as if someone had mistakenly hung an 11-under number for McIlroy instead of 1-under. It was no mistake, though, as those playing in the group just in front of McIlroy already knew.

“I really wasn’t worried about him,” said Steve Stricker, who shot a 69 only to find himself 13 shots back. “The lead was too far away to be thinking about it.”

If the rest of the players had any hope to take with them overnight it was that McIlroy has been in this position before and failed to finish it off. Most notable, of course, was the 4-shot lead he lost in the final round of the Masters, when he imploded on the 10th hole on his way to a fat 80.

But the record-setting rounds of 65 and 66 that McIlroy opened with at Congressional may have been more impressive than anything he did in the first three rounds on Augusta National.

“He’s that kind of talent,” Snedeker said. “Everybody knows it. It’s great to see him do that, especially on the heels of the Masters.”

For his part, McIlroy said he learned from his meltdown, particularly that he needs to be as aggressive in the final rounds as he is in the early rounds. Playing defensively was what got him into trouble in the final round at Augusta National, and he’s determined not to do the same thing again.

“I know more than probably anyone else what can happen,” McIlroy said. “So I’ve got to stay really focused and try and finish this thing off.”

If he does, McIlroy will stake his claim as golf’s best young player, something the sport desperately needs at a time when the future is uncertain for Woods. He will show the world what his fellow pros already know _ that the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland is a rare kind of player who comes along only so often.

“I think everybody would agree he’s probably got more talent in his pinky than I have in my whole body,” Snedeker said. “I love watching him play because it’s a very classical, beautiful golf swing. Once he matures and starts being out here for a while and being in these kind of situations, I think he’s only going to get harder to beat. It’s fun to kind of watch him grow up.”