Rory McIlroy acknowledges the gallery's cheers after making a birdie… (David Cannon / Getty Images )
From Bethesda, Md.
Sometimes, history comes and goes so fast you miss it.
But when you have a 22-year-old kid with curly hair tucked under his cap and a smile that lights up a room, turning a U.S. Open golf course into a pitch and putt, you are ready to be a witness.
You could see him in the distance, 175 yards away, standing with a club in his hands, waiting for the other guys to hit first because their drives hadn't been as long as his. One of the other guys was Phil Mickelson, already a legend. The other was Dustin Johnson, who has a chance to become one if his brain ever gets synchronized with his swing.
It was nearing 12:30 p.m. at Congressional Country Club. The humidity was turning shirts into dish rags.
The massive crowds held back from the fairways and greens by ropes were swarming to the 17th hole as if somebody were giving away free putters. One minute, they were 20 deep. Moments later, 30. They knew. Or they merely followed the buzz that had been building all morning, as word got around that Rory McIlroy was beating up a golf course designed to be the perpetrator, not the victim.
Mickelson hit first, his iron shot clearing the valley in front of the green on the par-four hole, avoiding nearby bunkers and settling just off the putting surface 50 feet away. Then Johnson hit to the center of the green, 40 feet from birdie.
All eyes turned back up the fairway to the light blue shirt and the curly hair. It's a trademark now, McIlroy's brand. Tiger Woods has his fist pump and red shirt on Sunday. McIlroy has that thick, black Irish hair. They don't make caps big enough to hide it.
The majority in the huge gallery knew only that this kid was lighting it up and wanted to be there to catch a glimpse. The more savvy knew that McIlroy had just birdied No. 16 — missed a makeable eagle putt, no less — and were he to make another birdie, he would become the first person ever to go 13 under par at any point in any U.S. Open.
This is the 111th.
There was perhaps a 20-foot semicircle area below the front-left pin on No. 17, from where you had a reasonable chance to make birdie. That allowed a slightly uphill putt without the bumps and valleys that made up the rest of the green. If you stood back and took in the green in its entirety, it looked like one of those post-earthquake pictures of a highway.
McIlroy hit it just over a trap, and right into that desirable area. It stopped 15 feet away, and after Mickelson and Johnson each hit nice lag putts to set up their pars, McIlroy stood over his putt. If John McEnroe had been doing the live telecast, he would have used the same line he did the moment Pete Sampras prepared to serve on match point at Wimbledon for a record 13th Grand Slam tennis title.
"History, folks," McEnroe said, needing to say no more.
And history it was. McIlroy rolled it dead center. There it was, 111 years of the best players in the world, attempting to navigate the terrors of a U.S. Open course, and this was the first time anybody had done it that well.
Of course, life and the U.S. Open go on. McIlroy had one more hole, hit his drive left on the ridiculously long and difficult 523-yard, par-four 18th, hit his second shot into the water and finished with a six. That meant the 13-under stayed on the board for perhaps 20 minutes. He still managed to set the record for best 36-hole score at 65-66—131.
But the little slip on No. 18, and his history, meant that all the doubts remain about his ability to keep this going.
He has led majors before, most recently going into the final round of this year's Masters. On Sunday, he shot 80. He started last year's British Open at St. Andrews with a 63 and quickly followed with an 80. The magnitude of those collapses is not lost on him.
"I know, probably more than anyone else," he said, "what can happen."
He also said he has worked on it, even come up with a new approach.
"I did a piece after Augusta," he said, "where I said I needed to be a little more cocky, a little more arrogant on the golf course, and think a little more about myself . . . just on the golf course."
After last year's U.S. Open, where McIlroy missed the cut and his Northern Ireland buddy, Graeme McDowell, won, he was quoted extensively about how happy he was for McDowell. Same thing when he faced up to the media after his implosion at Augusta, when he said he was happy for winner Charl Schwartzel.
"Yeah, I'd like to be happy for myself," he said Friday.
Nobody took a big run at McIlroy on Friday afternoon. It was almost as if Congressional would have no more. Play was even stopped for 42 minutes in anticipation of lightning and rain. Wags in the press center speculated that everybody else had just packed up and gone home.
McIlroy will start Saturday with a six-shot lead, tied for best ever. When Woods won by 15 at Pebble Beach in 2000, his 36-hole lead was six.
McIlroy has already made history of one kind. Now he needs to avoid the other, the kind that would label him forever a poster boy for sports train wrecks.