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McIlroy back on top of major, trying not to fall again

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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BETHESDA, Md. -- Noted golf architect Rees Jones had been hanging around the 111th U.S. Open premises all day, and like many others, he figured that somebody was sure to light up the scoreboard at Congressional Country Club.

The conditions were right, the world's best players were on the grounds and the greens were running slower than cars on the traffic-choked Beltline, compared to the Open's baked-out norm. Hours passed.

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History has shown that when mega-low scores crop at major championships, it's frequently in the first round, before the pressure builds. Jones assumed somebody would make a wicked run at Congressional, maybe even threaten the Grand Slam scoring record of 63. Then absolutely nothing happened.

Late in the afternoon, Jones, who redesigned Congressional in advance of the Open, looked up as Ulsterman Rory McIlroy was making yet another birdie.

"All day we've been waiting, and now it looks like he might do it," Jones said.

The 22-year-old didn't quite threaten any major-championship marks, but comparatively speaking, his 6-under-par 65 was nearly as impressive.

Grabbing the first-round lead for the third time in the past four majors, McIlroy managed six birdies, and was the lone player in a field of 156 without a bogey to stake himself to an impressive three-shot lead.

For the fourth major in succession, the rising star from Northern Ireland at some point has held a share of the lead or better. He matched the Grand Slam scoring record with an opening 63 last summer at the British Open and was a co-leader in April at Augusta National with a 65.

"I am sort of getting used to shooting good first rounds at the majors," he said.

We know what you're thinking -- wait till he can say the same about the fourth round. It's a fair point.

McIlroy was tied for the lead on the back nine at the PGA Championship last fall and played the last four holes 1 over, missing a 15-footer to secure a spot in a playoff. He skied to an 80 after starting the final round of the Masters with a four-shot lead, skidding to 15th place. He got caught in bad weather after the 63 last summer at St. Andrews and shot 80 on Friday.

McIlroy is an intuitive kid. He knew he was going to face plenty of questions about the Masters this week and hasn't deflected or offered excuses about any of it. There's going to be residual doubt about his abilities among the fans until he can deliver the goods and he knows it. Despite all his talent, he has two career victories and has left a handful of other titles on the Sunday table.

Rory McIlroy has led three of the past four majors after the first round. (Getty Images)  
Rory McIlroy has led three of the past four majors after the first round. (Getty Images)  
"I need to not only prove to everyone else, but prove to myself, that I have learned from Augusta and moved on," he said.

He put a move on Thursday, for sure. He made a daunting course look remarkably toothless. Playing alongside four-time major winner Phil Mickelson and rising American standout Dustin Johnson, they shot 74 and 75. McIlroy roasted 'em both.

"It was fun to watch, although I didn't see much of it [from where I was]," Mickelson cracked.

It was too simple, even. McIlroy called it "stress-free."

"It's not going to be that easy every day," McIlroy said. "I think we all know that."

Even so, let's put the day in Open perspective, because this event is a different animal entirely.

If McIlroy avoids any derailments and shoots three straight 72s, that leaves him at 3 under on Sunday night, a score that would have won five of the past six Opens contested.

As for those who haven't quite embraced the notion that McIlroy is past the disastrous final round at Augusta, his father actually laughed and rolled his eyes at the suggestion.

"I spoke to him 20 minutes after it happened," Gerry McIlroy said Thursday in the Congressional clubhouse. "I said, 'How are you, son?'

"He said, 'Dad, I'm fine.' That's all you need to know right there, isn't it? He's over it."

Sunday, of course, is Father's Day. As it relates to Rory and his state of mind, maybe father knows best.

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