McIlroy wins U.S. Open in record-setting fashion

16-under-par finish earns 1st major title

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy hoists the U.S. Open trophy at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda on Sunday, June 19, 2011, after running away from the field, finishing with a tournament best-ever 16 under par. (The Washington Times)Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy hoists the U.S. Open trophy at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda on Sunday, June 19, 2011, after running away from the field, finishing with a tournament best-ever 16 under par. (The Washington Times)

The U.S. Open ended Sunday much as it began three days earlier - with Rory McIlroy racing past the rest of the field.

The record-setting native of Northern Ireland completed his wire-to-wire rout at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club with a 2-under 69, finishing at a tournament-record 268 - 16 under par - to collect his first major title.

“There’s a lot of joy and, especially with this victory, there’s quite a bit of relief,” McIlroy said after the tournament. “More joy, though. I knew going out today I was very comfortable, and I knew most of the field was going to have a hard time catching up.”

Australian Jason Day shot a bogey-free 68 and finished second at 8-under for the tournament, eight shots behind McIlroy. Americans Kevin Chappell (66 on Sunday) and Robert Garrigus (70), Englishman Lee Westwood (70) and South Korean Y.E. Yang (71) tied for third at 6 under.

McIlroy’s four rounds, all under par, featured just three bogeys and one double bogey and produced only his third career victory - but easily his most memorable.

McIlroy is considered at the vanguard of the game’s next generation of stars. He matched the single-round major record with a 63 last year at the British Open, led the first three rounds of the Masters in April and then overwhelmed a course made receptive, thanks to oppressive heat a week earlier followed by consistent overnight rain throughout the tournament.

All this for a man less than two months removed from his 22nd birthday.

“What he’s doing is pretty special,” world No. 1 Luke Donald said after he wrapped up his own round Sunday. “In a way, it’s inspiring, just because as a golfer, it’s nice to know you have that full control that he’s had over the last three days. It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s a good feeling to have.”

It capped a week of dominance by McIlroy, who pelted Congressional almost from his first hole. It was also vastly different from the Open’s other two trips to the classic track on River Road.

Ken Venturi battled both the heat and the course to collect his memorable 1964 Open victory. Ernie Els’ 1997 title was defined as much by the miscues of Tom Lehman and Colin Montgomerie as his own brilliant play.

There was nowhere near as much tension Sunday, but perhaps a greater dose of history to make up for it.

The lone remaining question for McIlroy on Sunday was whether he could finish off a major, especially in light of what happened two months ago at Augusta, where he held a two-shot lead after three rounds but squandered his chance at the green jacket with a fourth-round 80.

He yet again went to bed Saturday with a 54-hole lead, only this time prepared to implement the lessons of his Masters meltdown when he teed off.

“I knew what I needed to do today,” he told NBC during the televised trophy ceremony. “At Augusta, I learned a few things about myself and my game. I put different things into practice, and it paid off.”

A collapse would have been historic. The largest 54-hole lead wasted in majors’ history is Greg Norman’s six-shot edge entering the final round of the 1996 Masters. No one has rallied from more than seven shots back on the final day at the U.S. Open. McIlroy carried an eight-shot lead into the day.

It didn’t take long for what little drama lingered to be extinguished.

McIlroy stuck his approach shot into the green at No. 1 within 12 feet, then rolled in a birdie putt to extend his lead to nine. Three holes later, he drained a short birdie putt to reach 16 under and push his lead to double-digits.

McIlroy’s seemingly easy week - a three-shot lead over Yang after Thursday that was pushed to six strokes a day later - also provided a compelling answer to questions of how well golf could survive without former No. 1 and 14-time major winner Tiger Woods.

Woods, who comparably burst onto the scene at 21 with a 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters, was absent from the tournament as he continued to recover from injuries.

Should Woods, who has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, return in time for next month’s British Open, he’ll find the latest prodigy ready to usurp his crown as the golf world’s most compelling figure.

McIlroy has some distance to go before he matches Woods’ accomplishments, but in owning the field at Congressional, he also owns his first major.

The first, it would seem, of many more to come.

“Nothing this kid does ever surprises me,” said countryman Graeme McDowell, who won last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in California. “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen.”

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