Thursday, June 16, 2011

This May Be McIlroy's Major Moment

   Eighteen holes -- and 65 strokes -- into this U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy is in a precarious and enviable position.

   McIlroy is on the edge of becoming golf's next great player as he demonstrated again in the first round at Congressional. He made the game -- and the notoriously hateful -- U.S. Open look as easy as saying thank you. McIlroy carved up Congressional, staking himself to a three-stroke lead at the one-quarter post of the year's second major championship.

   But McIlroy has been here before. It's the third time in the last four majors that he's led after the first round but he still doesn't have a major championship trophy. No harm in that, considering his just 22 but he's nearing the point where experience could turn into scar tissue.

    After 63 to open the British Open at St. Andrews, he shot 80 in a gale on the second day. He three-putted away a chance to be in the PGA Championship playoff won by Martin Kaymer last August and then there was the Masters just two months ago.

   We know how that ended.

   To his credit, McIlroy smiled about his Masters meltdown earlier this week when he was complimented for taking questions after shooting 80 to lose by 10 strokes. "I had five or six holes to think about what I was going to say," McIlroy cracked.

   Now he's in the lead of the U.S. Open and two questions leap to mind:

  -- Is this the major when Rory keeps his foot on the gas and wins by half a dozen?

  -- Or, what if it gets away again?

   To be fair, it's only one round of this U.S. Open and it could look very different by Friday evening but McIlroy has staked himself to the lead. Someone else could play better than McIlroy over the next three days and wiin, a reasonable possibility.

   But whom would you rather have than McIlroy right now?
   He has a game as big as the sky and a spirit that, so far at least, seems undamaged by his previous near misses. McIlroy appears to have the gift that the great ones have -- he loves the big moment.

    He didn't handle it well at the Masters, falling victim to the classic mistake of letting the game change speeds on him. Time after time, players who've lost leads talk about getting out of their rhythm and not being able to slow down when things are coming apart. It's what McIlroy said happened to him.

   It's tough to pause, take a deep breath, take another one and turn down the speed. Maybe that will be the great lesson McIlroy learned at Augusta, the one that could carry him this week.

   This is a guy who got ready for the U.S. Open by doing a UNICEF tour in Haiti where nobody cares whether he wins or loses this weekend. Unless he's fooling all of us -- and I don't think he is -- McIlroy has an old head on his shoulders.

    He's been here before which makes it all the more interesting to see where he goes from here.