BETHESDA, Md.—For Rory McIlroy, Thursday was a day of promise—but the 22-year-old from Northern Island knows only too well that the day of atonement won’t come till Sunday, June 19, if it comes at all.
Nine weeks and four days after wilting under the pressure of a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Masters, McIlroy capitalized on favorable scoring conditions at gargantuan Congressional Country Club and fashioned an impeccable, bogey-free 65 to take the first-round lead in the 2011 U.S. Open.
McIlroy holds a three-shot lead over a pair of major winners, 2009 PGA champion Y.E. Yang of Korea and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, who took advantage of McIlroy’s angst at Augusta to snare his first major title.
Not since 1976—when amateur Mike Reid paced a quarter of players by three shots—has anyone held a lead that large after one round of the national championship. McIlroy accomplished the feat without a blemish on his scorecard.
Starting on the controversial 199-yard, par-3 10th hole, where playing partner Phil Mickelson put a damper on his 41st birthday by dunking his first shot of the day into the lake that fronts the green, McIlroy picked up birdies on three of the back nine’s par-4s—the 12th, 17th and demanding 18th. On the front side, he birdied the first and fourth holes—both par-4s—as well as the par-5 sixth.
Clearly, McIlroy is capable of building a lead in a major championship. The question that remains is: Can he hold it?
Though McIlroy has an opening 65 at Augusta and a record-tying first-day 63 in the British Open to his credit, closing the deal has been elusive, to say the least.
“I took the experience from Augusta, and I learned a lot from it,” McIlroy said after the round. “But I feel like these good starts in the majors are very much down to my preparation and how I prepare for them. But yeah, I mean, you can't… you're going into the U.S. Open. You can't be thinking about what's happened before. You've got to just be thinking about this week and how best you can prepare and how you can get yourself around the golf course.”
In fact McIlroy said he stopped thinking about the Masters a week after his massive meltdown.
“I think you definitely have to analyze the parts that you want to do better,” he explained. “But I stopped -- I really stopped thinking about it a week after. You really try and pick it apart and pick things out that you could have done better, but after you do that and you're happy with everything that you've sort of taken from it, then you've just got to move on.”
Over the next three days, McIlroy will have the chance to show the world what he’s learned.