Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2011

With One Swing, Rory Slays The Demons

It was a bit after five o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Thousands of golf fans were crammed tightly into the signature area of Congressional Country Club’s Blue Course, that point where the par-3 10th hole sits hard by the 18th green, just below the massive and beautiful clubhouse. They were waiting to see whether Rory McIlroy, the 22-year old phenom from Northern Ireland, would exorcise or yet again be victimized by the major championship back nine demons that had derailed his final round at The Masters just two months earlier. They were waiting for the 111th U.S. Open’s defining moment.

Everyone in attendance knew the sad story of The Masters. McIlroy, leading by 4 strokes to start the final round, had played tentatively through the first nine and seen his lead slip to a single stroke by the time he made the turn. But it was on Augusta’s 10th hole that he descended into purgatory, sending his tee shot hard left off of a pine tree into uncharted territory; eventually recording a triple bogey on the first of a four hole descent that would see him tumble down the leader board, eventually finishing in a tie for 15th place.

While McIlroy rightfully won much praise for his gracious response to that debacle, the memory of it was surely in every fan’s mind as Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Open got underway. Both immediately after and in the weeks since The Masters, McIlroy had insisted that he had drawn valuable lessons about both himself and his golf game from that unhappy Sunday; lessons that would prove valuable the next time he found himself contending in a major.

Not surprisingly, that next time was at the very next major championship. McIlroy, who had been at or near the top of the leaderboard at some point in each of the last three majors, raced to the front of the pack with a scintillating 6-under par 65 in Thursday’s opening round. He followed that up with an equally impressive second round of 66. When he holed out from the fairway for an eagle on the par-4 8th hole on Friday, he reached 10-under par after just 26 holes of golf, the fastest any player had ever gotten that far under par at a U.S. Open. The double-bogey that ended that second round, when he pulled an iron from the left rough on #18 into the water next to the green, was his first over par hole in the tournament.

Leading by 3 strokes after the first round and by 6 after the second, McIlroy expanded his lead to a gaudy 8 strokes with a third round score that was again in the 60’s. His 3-under round of 68 was marred by just one bogey, when he failed to get up and down from one of the bunkers behind the par-3 10th hole.

And so Sunday came. As he had at Augusta, McIlroy arrived at the first tee with a healthy lead. But on this day, there was an immediate sign that things might be different. While he had aroused the demons by bogeying the first hole on Sunday at The Masters, on this day the 22-year old quieted them by playing a perfect opening hole. A 3-wood to a perfect lie just right of the fairway, a wedge to the green, and a smoothly struck putt for a birdie.

Minutes earlier Englishman Lee Westwood, who began the day 9 strokes back in 3rd place, had played the hole in virtually identical fashion. When his birdie putt dropped a Westwood partisan in the crowd shouted “game on!” When McIlroy answered, the inevitable rejoinder from one of his rapidly growing number of fans was “game over!”

As McIlroy added a second birdie at the 4th hole, and made the turn at 2-under for the day and 16-under for the tournament, it did indeed look very much like the game was over. While several players further back in the field were having good days, his closest competitors were mostly running in place, and the lead was steady at eight or nine strokes. Still, there was the matter of that earlier final nine 43 to be addressed.

Which is why the thousands were there, crammed into the natural amphitheater surrounding the downhill par-3 10th, with the 18th green just off to one side. They were there to see who would prevail, McIlroy or the demons.

If one is going to go about the business of slaying demons, one needs a trusty weapon. For Rory McIlroy, it was a 7-iron. The 10th hole was well over 200 yards on the scorecard, playing a bit less than that as the golfers hit downhill to the green. The pin was tucked at the very base of a natural bowl on the front of the green, just a few feet past the lake guarding its front.

With a big lead and a major championship just nine holes away, no one would have blamed him if McIlroy had hit safely to the back or side of the green. It might have left a lengthy two-putt for par, but would have taken double-bogey or worse out of the equation. But demons are not slain by half-measures. With one rhythmic swing, McIlroy sent his Titleist high into the cloud-covered sky. It landed just past and left of the hole, at the very edge of the green’s front bowl. A half-foot farther, and the ball bounds to the back of the putting surface. Instead, it clung to the turf for a second, then two. At last, as gravity took hold even as the shouts began to build, the ball started rolling slowly, so slowly backwards. Down the hill and to the right along the slope, with each passing second coming ever so closer to the cup. As the roars and applause redoubled, echoing across Congressional’s hills, the ball finally came to rest, six inches behind the hole.

There were of course still eight holes to be played. The better part of two hours had to pass before Rory McIlroy could stroll down the 18th fairway, doffing his cap to the crowd even as he searched out his father in the scrum, on Father’s Day. A working class father and his only child would finally embrace on the 18th green, after the final putt fell to give Rory McIlroy his first major championship.

But with that still to come, as he made his way down the path from the 10th tee to the green, with the cheers of thousands echoing in his ears, those final eight holes had to look like a walk in the park. Since moments after The Masters Rory McIlroy had insisted that he was not afraid of any golfing demons. True to his word, with one mighty 7-iron, just past 5 o’clock on Sunday, wee-Mac slew them all. Now that he has, so thoroughly and convincingly, what a future awaits!

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