- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2011

The U.S. Open’s Rory Runaway still has 18 holes to go.

Nevertheless, there’s little reason to believe one of golf’s burgeoning stars will fritter away a shot at his first career major. Not with the cushion Rory McIlroy amassed in three days at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club.

McIlroy reached a U.S. Open-record 14-under on Saturday, firing a steady 68 to build an eight-shot lead over Y.E. Yang. Jason Day, Robert Garrigus and Lee Westwood are at 5-under, while Sergio Garcia, Fredrik Jacobson and Matt Kuchar are at 4-under.

As for the rest of the field? Winning doesn’t seem like a plausible option unless McIlroy radically reverses course in the final round.

“It makes Sunday a whole lot less interesting,” said Davis Love III (2-under). “But you still try to do it the best you can.”

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.

Considering such history, the final day sets up to be relatively drama-free. McIlroy and Yang will play in the final pairing for the second straight day and will tee off at 3:20 p.m. No one within 10 shots McIlroy will start until 2:50.

Perhaps more sobering, more than two-thirds of the field — 40 of 72 players — began Sunday more than 15 shots off McIlroy’s torrid pace.

While few of the early starters appeared headed for an especially low round — Korea’s Sangmoon Bae, who shot a 4-under 67, was an exception, while Gregory Havret and Robert Karlsson both were 4-under on the front nine  — the early scores suggested solid outings could be found throughout the day. That was the case Saturday, when 26 players shot under par.

No one exploited Congressional’s favorable conditions over the first three days better than McIlroy, who has led after six of the first seven rounds in majors this year.

The exception was the final day at the Masters, where back nine struggles led to an 80 and a 10-stroke deficit at the end of a trying afternoon. Rather than feel overwhelmed by an unpleasant day, McIlroy forged plenty of wisdom he intends to put to use on the final day at the U.S. Open.

“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,” said McIlroy, whose three-round total of 199 broke Jim Furyk’s 2003 record by a stroke.

Should the 22-year-old — whose best previous major finishes are ties for third at the 2009 and 2010 PGA Championships and the 2010 British Open — break through, it will be a substantial step for a player anointed by many in the game to be at the vanguard of the next generation of stars.

The common assumption is it will be the first of many. McIlroy is uninterested in thinking beyond Sunday.

“I’m looking for my first one,” McIlroy said. “I’ve put myself in a great position to do that tomorrow, and then we’ll see what happens from there. As I said before this week, it’s nice to have all these complimentary things said about you, but until you actually do these things, they don’t mean anything.”

What he’s done already this week means something. Yang cobbled together a steady round on Saturday — 15 pars, two birdies, one bogey. At most U.S. Opens, it would be precisely the brand of golfing survivalism the traditionally difficult tournament rewards.

Instead, his deficit grew two shots and left the 2009 PGA champion with an amusingly candid outlook on the final round.

“I’ll try and catch up with Rory as much as possible, as much as I can,” Yang said. “But if he doesn’t let go, it’s going to be a race for second place. I’m playing some good golf right now, actually. There are some areas that I need improvement. But at the same time, I can’t complain at the score I have right now on this type of course. Let the best second place win.”