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What's not to love? McIlroy's the real McCoy

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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BETHESDA, Md. -- You could have called it a tension-breaker.

But that presupposes there was angst to begin with.

Minutes before he teed off in the final round of the U.S. Open, the game's newest wunderkind was whacking balls on the practice range, his caddie and manager by his side. There were smiles all around, though the crowd watching his every movement from the bleachers were as quiet as Sunday church mice, respectful of the timbre of the day.

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That tone changed entirely when Rory McIlroy loudly clanged a shot off the caged golf cart that was collecting range balls about 200 yards away, making everybody wonder whether the kid with the target on his back had just zeroed in on a different target altogether.

The entire place, meaning hundreds of people, broke up laughing. Sorry to deflate a potential urban legend in the making, but he wasn't aiming for the guy, unlike millions of driving range hacks have done over the years.

"No, no, no, he wasn't," his agent, Chubby Chandler laughed, "but I did suggest that he aim for the TV camera."

If he had, McIlroy would have made it even tougher to put the week into focus. The 22-year-old on Sunday remained a moving target that nobody could hit, cruising to a laughably easy, superlative-strewn, eight-shot victory and becoming the youngest player in 88 years to win a U.S. Open title.

After beginning the day with a six-shot lead and a birdie on the first hole, there was no remote reprise of his closing 80 at the Masters, when he slept on the 54-hole lead and blew up so quickly with a skittish final round, his socks turned yellow and had a distinctly acidic smell.

This time McIlroy was so loose, that at one point during his warmup, Chandler and caddie J.P. Fitzgerald said something that made him halt a driver shot at the top of his swing, back away and laugh. He kept 'em laughing till the end, mostly in utter wonder.

It was hysterically historical.

In fact, the performance was so dominant and out of whack with the other scores at Congressional Country Club, fans and aficionados had to bite their tongues, lest they become too effusive. But what's not to love? The kid has panache, a swing to die for, doesn't cuss like a Green Beret or heave clubs, and eviscerated a course to such a degree, the members were speed-dialing architects, again. At what is billed as golf's toughest exam, a kid the same age as most college seniors aced the test as though he'd been given the answers beforehand.

Let's try our own true-or-false test:

1. McIlroy broke the 72-hole Open scoring mark, in both raw score and relative to par, by four strokes, while breaking or matching 12 Open records

2. He hails from a country with fewer residents than Nebraska.

3. Luke Donald tweeted that he is thinking of moving to Northern Ireland.

4. McIlroy obliterated the Open mark for most shots below par, reaching 17 under.

5. He's the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923.

6. He's so telegenic, he hails from a city pronounced "Hollywood."

7. He's the third player in Open history to shoot four rounds in the 60s.

8. He's too impossibly good to be true.

No need to grade this exam on a curve, because the answer to each is an absolute affirmative. For those doubting the last query, we've consulted another Northern Irishman, a guy who noshed with McIlroy on the night he coughed up that lead at Augusta National.

They spoke at a small kitchen table inside the home that Chandler rented in Augusta, with Lee Westwood seated nearby. David Feherty told the story of how many times he flinched and spit the bit on Sunday at majors over the years, and it became a cathartic night for McIlroy. He certainly hasn't looked back.

"I explained to him the thought process I had, what I was thinking, and that I didn't want it," said Feherty, a fellow Northern Irishman, on Sunday. "I said, 'I can see that you do.'

"He was right back at me and said, 'I want it more than you can imagine.' I said, 'I know, you're right, I can't imagine.' "

They all laughed, hoisted a beer, and then McIlroy went right back to contending at majors. For those who haven't read this the first dozen times I have typed it this week, he's held the lead at some point in each of the past four majors contested ... including on Sunday at the past three.

The U.S. Open has been played for 111 years and he kicked it down like a rickety picket fence. He led from wire to wire, the first player to accomplish that feat since Tiger Woods in 2002, but most of the comparisons in terms of dominance were to the performance of Woods at the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach, where he finished 12 under. Maybe they should have been casting back even farther, since McIlroy is four months younger than 18-time winner Jack Nicklaus when he claimed his first major.

"He's ahead of my pace," Nicklaus cracked on Sunday, "and his score is way ahead of my pace."

Everybody figured it would happen, eventually.

"It's pretty cool," Phil Mickelson said. "You can tell that Rory has had this type of talent in him for some time now and to see him putting it together is pretty neat to see."

For the old guard like Mickelson, or even Woods, McIlroy and his peer-group pals have gone from being rambunctious kids in the rear-view mirror to running at the front of the track. With longtime frontman Woods on the shelf, and established stars turning gray before our eyes, the kids are playing a transition game that's quicker than full-court hoops at an urban playground.

When Geoff Ogilvy turned 30 before the 2007 U.S. Open, there were zero players in their 20s who had won a major at any point in their careers. With McIlroy joining Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, all four Grand Slam title holders are age 28 or younger. Mickelson, the last American to win a major, turned 41 this week, and while that might not be old, at the produce stand, it's certainly approaching ripe.

Somewhere in Florida, Woods surely was watching on TV. It's hard to guess whether McIlroy's display made his ailing knee and Achilles feel better or worse. Meanwhile, with the putting stroke he had this week, McIlroy seems to have no Achilles-type weaknesses at all.

The comparisons to Woods end only with the array of shots they produce. In deportment, McIlroy is a class above, with an emphasis on class.

"He comes from a background where his parents gave up a lot for him to do what he's doing, and I think he still knows where he came from and appreciates that," said Donald, the reigning world No. 1. "He's very good with the fans, and it's very good for the game."

Well, it might be better from a dramatics standpoint if he didn't win by a touchdown and a conversion. The Congressional processional was every bit as lopsided as the scores would indicate. The last time this many combatants jointly waved the white flag of surrender in this area, Gen. Robert E. Lee was signing documents at Appomattox.

"I think Rory has set himself apart now in potential," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said. "Other guys have been in contention and failed to win majors. Rory has been lapping the field."

No longer will McIlroy be measured by possibilities and hypotheticals, but by the cold, hard math and unerring play he dropped on his foes this week. Harrington said McIlroy was born for this, and predicted Saturday that he could approach Nicklaus' record for most majors, since McIlroy most likely has two decades of golf ahead of him.

McIlroy remained grounded after blowing the green jacket two months ago, so winning a major won't change him, either, Harrington predicted.

"He's 22 years of age and this is indeed his destiny," Harrington said. "I think he's well prepared for it. You know what, I think he's got very good balance in his life, so I don't think this is going to be earth-shattering for him."

Just for the rest of global golf.

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