As the man moved closer, so did the roar.
Then, suddenly, it was everywhere, breaking over Congressional Country Club's red roofs and packed balconies. Down the grass bank below lined with chairs and tables covered with plastic cups, empty but for lime wedges on the bottom.
Onward the noise rolled, like a wave unfurling onto the shore. Through the fans jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in front of No. 10, clutching beers beaded with condensation and clear plastic bags full of U.S. Open souvenir hats and oversized golf balls. It washed over photographers, shirts dark from sweat and cameras slung over their shoulders next to the blue armbands that let them through the ropes.
A phalanx of Montgomery County police officers with clear earpieces and polo-shirted United States Golf Association Officials escorted the man across the practice green, over a green footbridge and onto the tee at No. 10. The roar Sunday sounded like the welcome for a messiah, not a golfer.
In a normal world, the man should have been Jason Day.
When you shoot 8-under par at the U.S. Open - on a fiendish course that is the second-longest in Open history, is filled with 96 bunkers, narrow fairways and a hundred other ways to ruin your scorecard - the gleaming trophy is all but yours.
"I thought," said Day, playing in his first U.S. Open, "4-under would win it."
But the world was not normal at Congressional. Not this year. Not with three nights of rain following a week of oppressive heat neutering once-slick greens. Not with Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, leaving the course players once complained was too difficult in tatters with a four-day total of 16-under par.
That left Day with a lonely second-place finish. Sure, a few chants of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Oi, Oi, Oi" followed the 23-year-old from Queensland, Australia. But the eyes, the crowd, the fawning phone call to NBC from Jack Nicklaus, the roar, belonged to McIlroy.
"If he wasn't in the field, we'd be talking about a pretty tight U.S. Open," said Jeff Hall, senior director at the USGA, "and, gosh, who's going to, and the ebb and the flow and there's X number of players within the lead. Rory is just obviously playing at a level that's a bit above everybody else."
Day's score in golf's toughest test would've raised eyebrows most any other year. Instead, it drifted away with the clouds of birdies and flies in Sunday's thick evening air. To shoot 8-under and lose left Day stunned.
"I would've said, 'You're nuts.' Definitely, I would've said, 'You're nuts," Day said. "Obviously coming to a U.S. Open that I've never played before ... 16 ended up winning it. It's just phenomenal golf. [McIlroy] lapped the field."
In the last seven U.S. Opens, six golfers finished the tournament under par. Thanks to the rain softening the course, 20 golfers ended under par Sunday.
"I don't think," USGA vice president Thomas O'Toole said, "we're going to try to trick Mother Nature."
The sinking feeling of being runner-up is familiar to Day. At the Masters in April, he birdied his final two holes. But Charl Schwartzel pulled out a two-stroke victory. Day finished second.
Kevin Chappell, Robert Garrigus, Lee Westwood and Y.E. Yang comprised a four-way tie for third place at 6-under par. Yang called McIlroy's potential "scary."
"He just didn't miss a beat, played phenomenal golf," Day said. "I played really, really solid golf over the weekend, which I really wanted to do, and I'm very, very happy to finish second."
But Day will have to wait another year, at least, for the roar to be for him.
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