BETHESDA, Md. — Rory McIlroy says he knows what he needs to do on the final day of the U.S. Open to avoid a repeat performance of his collapse over the last nine holes at the Masters back in April.
He carried out that course of action in textbook fashion Saturday on an overcast day at Congressional Country Club. Continuing his dominance over the rest of the field, he extended his lead to eight strokes after three rounds — double the advantage he held at Augusta National at the same point — and set yet another Open scoring record.
While he didn’t hit the ball quite as crisply as he had the first two days, McIlroy still had enough good shots to card a 3-under-par 68 and for a 54-hole score of 14-under 199. That was the lowest in a U.S. Open, breaking the mark of 200 set by Jim Furyk at Olympia Fields in 2003.
His 14-under par total was the most shots under par ever achieved in the national championship.
He did all this with the pressure ratcheting up more and more. He tried to relieve the stress by setting little goals for himself on the walk around the 7,500-yard course.
“The big goal I set for myself was to try to get to 15” under, he said. “I didn’t quite achieve it, but I don’t mind.
“It was trying to play little three-hole stretches in 1-under or level par, just trying to break it down into segments instead of really getting ahead of yourself … just little triggers that make you less worried about the result and more focused on what you’re actually doing.”
McIlroy will have to play the same games with himself on Sunday when he goes for a first major championship that many feel is overdue. He had command of the Masters, leading by four entering the final 18 and by one with nine holes to play.
However, he saw the green jacket snatched from his grasp with a back-nine 42 and an 80. After his round, he freely answered a question about how he will deal with the inevitable comparisons between Augusta and Congressional.
“From the experience that I had at Augusta, I know now how to approach” the final round,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing.
“At Augusta, it was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with the lead. I didn’t know whether to be defensive, aggressive, go for it, not go for it. But now I know what I need to do, which is a great thing to have. I have a clear mind going out there and I just need to stick to my game plan.”
McIlroy encountered difficulties early in Saturday’s round. He drove into the rough at the third hole and he had to punch out short of the green. His approach at No.<TH>4 landed in a greenside bunker. But he made par in both situations, then birdied No.<TH>5.
His other turning point came early on the back nine. He bogeyed the par-3 10th and then pulled his drive at the long 11th into the left rough, with 188 yards left to the hole. But he stuck a 7-iron to within 18 feet and sank the putt for birdie, regaining his momentum.
“It just took me a bit of time to get into the round,” he said. “But once I made those up-and-downs on 3 and 4, I found my rhythm and started to play really good golf.”
He called the birdie on 11 “huge for me. It’s one of the toughest holes on the course and when you birdie that you feel as if you’re picking up a shot-and-a-half on the field.”
With 15 pars, two birdies and a bogey, Y.E. Yang shot the kind of third round that usually gains ground in an Open. But he lost two shots to McIlroy and stands at 207 going into the final 18, during which he again will be paired with the leader.
Lee Westwood and Jason Day each carded 65s, tying McIlroy for the lowest round of the Open, to join Robert Garrigus (68) in a tie for third at 208.
McIlroy certainly is the class of the 111th Open. Some of his colleagues feel that his first major title will open the door to many others. Padraig Harrington even said he felt McIlroy was the guy who would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories.
McIlroy just rolled his eyes upon hearing that one.
“Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” he said. “You know, I’m still looking for my first one. That’s all I can say. I’ve put myself in a great position to do that \[Sunday\], and then we’ll see what happens from there.
“It’s nice to have all these complimentary things said about you but until you actually do these things, they don’t mean anything.”
The big test comes Sunday.