As Rory McIlroy’s U.S. Open tour de force wound to a close with a comfortable march down the 18th fairway Sunday, few in the gallery or television audience could doubt it was a moment not soon forgotten.
Sure, the Northern Irishman etched a few edits into the tournament’s record book. More importantly, it was a signal golf’s future had formally arrived.
McIlroy’s feats at Congressional Country Club - wire-to-wire champion, low 72-hole score at a U.S. Open (268), youngest winner of the event since 1923 - figure to remain notable early lines on his resume. Yet less than two months removed from his 22nd birthday, it is clear there is far, far more to come.
“He’s got the world in front of him,” veteran Steve Stricker said. “He’s got tremendous potential. I think fundamentally he’s as good as we’ve seen ever in my era, take Tiger Woods out of it. When Tiger was going well, that’s as good as I’ve ever seen. I think Rory is in that same boat.”
Woods‘ presence looms large over golf, a commercial behemoth who rapidly blossomed from a precocious talent to a 14-time major winner by the time he was 32. He hasn’t won one since the 2008 U.S. Open, with injury, the unraveling of his personal life and more injuries halting his once-inexorable march at Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
Even absent from the field, Woods‘ name continued to surface as McIlroy soaked in the moment and dutifully answered questions Sunday between furtive glances at the greatest prize of his career - a U.S. Open trophy.
“It’s a great thing for me,” McIlroy said. “I can always call myself a major champion now and I can go ahead and focus on, as I said, trying to get some more.”
Based on McIlroy’s reception, it would be a welcome development with fans.
Fans swarmed his group throughout the week, in part on Thursday and Friday because of four-time major winner Phil Mickelson’s presence. But McIlroy’s omnipresent smile, easygoing demeanor and ability to bounce back from major misery easily won over the crowd and made for a popular champion.
“If we wanted an ambassador for golf for the next generation, he’d be one of the guys, definitely,” said Masters and U.S. Open runner-up Jason Day, himself still a pup at 23 and poised to make his own breakthrough in the near future.
McIlroy’s march through a literally watered-down Congressional - overnight thunderstorms throughout the week ensured the field could fire at the softened greens without nearly as much punishment as usually would be the case - clinched a title that oddly seemed a long time coming for such a young star who still owns only three professional victories worldwide.
McIlroy shot a 68 in his first British Open round as an 18-year-old in 2007. He tied for third at the PGA Championship two years later, led the British Open after the first round last summer, played on the winning European side in the Ryder Cup in September and has led after seven of eight rounds at majors this year.
The exception was a final-round 80 at the Masters, a squandered opportunity that would haunt many golfers for years, if not their entire careers. McIlroy got over it quickly, then simply seized the next major on the schedule.
“Luckily enough for me, I was able to get in that position the major right after Augusta,” McIlroy said. “To be able to finish it off the way I did, it just tells me that I learned from it and I’ve moved on.”
McIlroy shrugged off talk all week of piling up majors before collecting his first. That task accomplished, there’s little doubt more are on the way.
Time and prodigious talent are on McIlroy’s side, with Royal St. George’s (British Open) and the Atlanta Athletic Club (PGA Championship) the next targets on a journey that is just starting.
“If it might not be this year, then that’s fine,” McIlroy said. “But I’ve got plenty more years to get a few more. So I’m happy with this at the minute, and if I can add to that this year then that’s great.”