Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 19, 2011

18 To Play, And One Story Tops All Others

Through three days of practice and three rounds of competition, the 111th U.S. Open has offered more than its fair share of compelling stories. With 18 holes left to play, what remains to be seen is how the most compelling one of all plays out.

Amateur golfers are always part of the U.S. Open field; but more often than not they aren’t around for the weekend. But this year three amateurs made the cut. Two of them, Russell Henley and Patrick Cantlay, have done more than just win the right to play the weekend. Through three rounds Henley is at even par and Cantlay is 1-under. Cantlay, a freshman at UCLA, even earned a spot in the Open’s highlight reel by holing out a sand shot for birdie on the par-4 15th hole during Saturday’s third round.

One of golf’s major stories in 2011 has been the dominance of international golfers. That storyline has carried over into this country’s national championship. Through three rounds, eight of the top ten positions on the leader board are held by non-Americans.

An international player who sits a bit further down the leader board is the hands down winner as the player with the most unlikely trip to the Open. Englishman Robert Rock knew a couple of weeks ago that he had qualified for the tournament, but he was stuck in London trying to sort out a visa problem until the last possible moment. His flight to New York finally landed at 11 p.m. Wednesday night. He then took a $1,000 cab ride to Washington, arriving at his hotel at 3:30 a.m. Thursday morning. After a few hours sleep he teed it up for this afternoon tee time in Thursday’s first round. Having never seen Congressional’s Blue Course he shot 70-71 for the first two rounds to easily make the cut at 1-under par. Only on Saturday did his whirlwind journey finally seem to catch up to him, as he fell back to 4-over for the tournament with a third round 76.

But the dominant story has of course been that of the wee 22-year old from Hollywood, Northern Ireland. The media guide says Rory McIlroy stands 5 feet 9 inches and weighs 161 pounds. In person one’s first impression is that those measurements may have been taken while he was wearing lifts and a waterlogged bathrobe. However slight he may be in stature, McIlroy’s golf game has been gigantic. Through 54 holes he has returned 199, 14-under par. With that he has set records for the U.S. Open, both for aggregate strokes and for score in relation to par. He lies eight strokes clear of the field.

Through three days of spectacular and steady play, McIlroy has won over the huge crowds at Congressional. Fans at our national championship have been known to take a decidedly provincial attitude toward international players. But as McIlroy made his way around the sprawling layout on Saturday, there were organized chants of “Let’s go, Ro-ry!” echoing off Congressional’s hills.

Still, 18 holes remain. It has been just over two months since McIlroy collapsed in the final round of The Masters, turning a 4-shot third round lead into a 10-shot deficit with a final round 80. If that fourth round in Augusta had never happened, we would all be preparing to crown golf’s new king. We would all be joining in Padraig Harrington’s gushing assessment that it may be McIlroy rather than Tiger Woods who will ultimately break the record for most major championships.

But because that Sunday in April happened, it will inevitably be part of the conversation, until the Sunday comes when McIlroy finally seals the deal at a major. To his everlasting credit, he seems to be the only one not caught up in the moment, responding to word of Harrington’s praise with laughter before making the point that he hasn’t won even one major yet.

Yet. Soon enough, we will know if today is the day. The adoring crowds at Congressional, warming day by day to the level-headed young man in the rumpled clothes, shirt tail constantly threatening to come untucked, have certified McIlroy as golf’s new hero. Eighteen holes remain to determine whether he is a triumphant, or a tragic one.

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