Rory McIlroy might be becoming an American hero

SEEKING TO KILL some time the other day, Rory McIlroy climbed the Art Museum steps and had his photo taken with his arms raised, as so many tourists of Philadelphia have done. He did so in jeans and a clean, white T-shirt under a Phillies jersey bearing his name, a red Phils hat turned backward.

The visual, at least for me, looked much less Rocky Balboa and much more Bruce Springsteen on his 1984 "Born in the USA" album cover. Not exactly what he was going for. But - and this is important when discussing the young Irishman - it still kind of made sense.

Rory was all over the Merion map yesterday. He birdied tough holes, bogeyed some deemed easy. His day started real bad, got real promising, and ended, with a birdie and a bogey over two of his last three holes, so-so.

Or so it seemed. When his second round ended shortly after 3 p.m., he was tied with a bunch of players, including Tiger Woods, at 3-over.

A few hours later, after the rest of the field traced his steps, he stood tied for 17th.

"I'm very happy," he said afterward. "Right in there for the weekend. I don't think I will be too far away by then."

There might be greater golfers in the game today. There may not be a more Teflon one than Rory McIlroy. Born a Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland, his game weaned among the Protestant members of his hometown Holywood Golf Club, McIlroy is, at 24, already an enigma. He has moved to America, considers himself more British than Irish, is even contemplating playing for the Union Jack at the Rio Olympics.

In February, he withdrew from the Honda Classic because of a toothache, which some saw as a crock. Another golfer - maybe one with an animal nickname - might have been criticized for months. But the scrutiny of McIlroy went away almost as fast as the toothache did, despite continued struggles with his game.

Truth is, whether we are talking any part of Ireland, England or these United States, McIlroy continues to be one of the sport's most popular and charismatic golfers. Consider, for example, the huge $250 million contract he signed with Nike. Or that, after he won the U.S. Open in 2011, a poll found that 39 percent of British men between the ages of 18 to 24 said they were inspired to try golf for the first time because of McIlroy. Last year, at the ripe old age of 23, he was ranked by Golf magazine as the second-most powerful person in British golf.

McIlroy rose to the PGA's top ranking last March, but his game has crashed back among the sport's muggles of late, casting rain clouds of doubt over what just a short time ago seemed a sun-blinding future.

And yesterday? His first round suspended by Thursday's weather, McIlroy appeared to be playing himself right into a weekend of deciding between Pat's and Geno's as he finished that round yesterday morning with two bogeys.

"There were people saying 63, 64," he said of predictions that Merion would play easy. "It was never going to happen. You don't hit the fairways here, you're never going to score. And when you do hit the fairways, it's still a big challenge from there."

McIlroy said this with a smile, even later kidding with the media who predicted such scores by saying, "You must be good golfers."

"I like it," he said. "I really do. You're under pressure from that first tee shot. You have to put your ball in the fairway every hole. You're under pressure to hit that fairway and when you do there are some holes you can take advantage of, and there are some holes you just have to try and make a par and move on."

The truth, he said and proved with a second-round 70, is that par will go a long way this weekend, even if the course dries out as expected. What he also thought he proved, and what would make this weekend really entertaining, is that he was inches away from regaining the form that made him golf's golden child less than a year ago.

"I hope so," he said. "I feel like I'm playing well enough. I've been telling everyone for a while that my game is close, and to get through two rounds of the toughest test in golf, the U.S. Open, and to play the way I did, it's very promising going into the weekend."

McIlroy's second round included four birdies - and four bogeys. Enough to nurture such a hope, but enough to harbor doubt, too. Starting at the 11th hole, he recorded consecutive par-4 birdies to regain the lost strokes from earlier in the day.

It looked like the seedling to momentum. But if the pros have learned anything at this place over the last 2 days, it is that Merion doesn't do momentum.

"It's tough," he said. "You don't really get a stretch . . . It's tough for a few holes and then it backs off for a few and then it's tough again. It's a great mix."

A Rocky mix? Again, a smile.

"Yeah, you have to go 12 rounds with it," he said. "Or 15 in Rocky days. I'm not old enough for that."

DN Members Only: The Philly crowd finds someone to root for -- the course.


On Twitter: @samdonnellon