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Peers hold nothing back on McIlroy's potential for greatness

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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BETHESDA, Md. -- The all-Ireland cheerleading squad was at full throat on Saturday heralding the legend of Rory McIlroy.

"He's potentially the next Tiger Woods," said Northern Ireland countryman Graeme McDowell.

"You talk about having a chance to break Jack's record, there's your man," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said.

Told of Harrington's declaration, McIlroy ducked his head, rolled his eyes and shook his head.

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"Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy ...," said the 22-year-old with the eight-shot lead who's rewriting the U.S. Open record book at Congressional Country Club. "You know, I'm still looking for my first one. That's all I can say."

While McIlroy tries very hard not to get ahead of himself with the wounds of blowing a four-shot lead at the Masters still fresh in his mind, his closest peers from the Emerald Isle had no such reservations about raising the chorus of the new boy king.

"It's just phenomenal," said McDowell, the defending champion from Northern Ireland. "You run out of superlatives to describe what he's doing this week. He's decimating a field."

McDowell has been waiting for this moment ever since he heard the whispers at home nearly a decade ago.

"I first heard about him when he shot 61 at my home course in Portrush," McDowell said. "You hear rumors about people. You hear things, and good players come and go. But this kid was something a bit special. I've gotten to know him a lot over the last three or four years and played practice rounds with him.

"Playing practice rounds with him can be demoralizing, because you walk off feeling down on your own game when you see how he hits it. He's potentially the next Tiger Woods. He's that good. It's great to see him out there fulfilling his potential. ... I hope he goes on and does it, because I've been waiting for this to happen. He's that good, there's no doubt about it."

The Woods references have been pouring in because McIlroy is putting on a show in the U.S. Open not seen since Woods put on a clinic with a 15-stroke victory in 2000 at Pebble Beach that kicked off his wrap-around Grand Slam of 2000-01.

"Will he achieve what Tiger was doing around 2000, 15 major championships to date or whatever he's got? Can he be that good?" McDowell said. "Yeah, potentially. He's got that potential."

Harrington was less restrained with his qualifiers.

"When you are winning majors at 22, with his talent, and you've got more than 20 years to play majors, a hundred majors to play, I would give him a great chance to catch Jack," said Harrington, a three-time major winner himself.

It's not just the Irish whose eyes are smiling with regards to McIlroy's game. Steve Stricker, the highest ranked American in the field and a frequent playing partner with Woods in international team play, sees the parallels.

"He's got a lot of talent and he's only 22," said Stricker. "He's got the world in front of him really. His game looks flawless. His swing looks great. I think it looks just as good as when Tiger was in his prime and swinging at it at his best. You just don't see any flaws."

Not everyone, of course, is ready to concede defeat. McIlroy's shaky history in closing as a front-runner still haunts him until he proves otherwise.

"You don't know how he's going to deal with the big lead," said Englishman Lee Westwood, who sits in third, nine shots behind. "He had a big lead in a major and didn't deal with it well before. There's pressure on him with regards to that. So we'll see."

But even Westwood joked that McIlroy's surgical carving of a U.S. Open venue could lead to "Rory-proofing" down the road.

"If they make the golf courses longer, it will be 8,000 yards next year," he said. "We have Rory to thank for that."

Others aren't ready to crown McIlroy as the second coming of Woods.

"We'll see," said Davis Love III, who understands a little about unfulfilled major expectations. "I doubt there will be another Tiger Woods."

Yet Love also marvels at McIlroy's composure.

"I think he's about 27 in golf years," Love said. "He's very polished on experience. When I was 22, I didn't have the wealth of experience he has. ... I don't think we've seen a rookie come out with his composure and be ready to play on our tour right away like he is. He and Rickie Fowler I think are a lot alike.

"They're both very mature, very well rounded, smart guys that know where they want to go and how to get there. They're not just trying to figure it out -- they're trying to win."

Perhaps the greatest cautionary tale is sitting on the Congressional leaderboard in sixth place at 4-under par.

Sergio Garcia was considered a slam-dunk, can't-miss, sure-thing superstar at age 19 when he leapt out from behind a tree and chased after Tiger Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah. The energetic "El Nino" finished runner-up that year and was the darling of the media.

Eleven years and a handful of near-misses later, Garcia is a sometimes embittered 31-year-old who lost his love for the game and is still searching for that elusive major title.

"He's playing awesome," Garcia said. "I would expect him to play the same way tomorrow and probably win. He's looking great. I hope he does it, he's a great guy and he deserves it."

Most expect he will and his friends hope to witness it first-hand. After missing the cut at the Masters two months ago, McDowell stuck around Saturday and walked the course following McIlroy outside the ropes. This time he expects to see his countryman bring the U.S. Open trophy back to Northern Ireland.

"I'm going to have a chance to have a good finish tomorrow, and I've got to concentrate the foremost on that," said McDowell, the defending champion. "Once I step out on the 18th tomorrow, it's a chance to get a cold beer and watch the wee man do it."

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