McIlroy celebrates after hitting his approach within a foot of the cup on No. 10.
BETHESDA, Md. -- Whatever Rory McIlroy did off the 10th tee the last day of the Masters, we didn't see it.
This time, in the U.S. Open, off the 10th tee, we saw it all.
At the Masters' 10th tee, the kid hit a drive so far left it practically came to rest in a house.
This time, in the Open, his 6-iron over water to the 10th green, 218 yards away, came to rest in our hearts.
On the 10th tee at Congressional Country Club, waiting for the group ahead to clear the green, McIlroy took a bite out of a Nutri-Grain bar. Then he walked slowly to the back of the tee. He looked impossibly young. Only 5-foot-9, 170 pounds. Light freckles on his cheeks. That curly hair sneaking out from under his cap. The shirttail slipping over his belt. At the back of the tee, he folded the end papers over the uneaten bar, and only then did he deposit the bar into a trash sack. All done carefully, even precisely, as if to make certain he didn't bogey the trash sack.
He had a 10-shot lead at the time. He'd played the front two-under par, becoming the first player ever in an Open to reach -15, then -16. Unless forced to play the back nine blindfolded while on a pogo stick, he had this baby won. But, hey. Stranger things have happened. Julia Roberts once married Lyle Lovett. And remember "Tin Cup"? Roy McAvoy had the Open won. Roy McAvoy, Rory McIlroy, Rory, Roy. In the movie, McAvoy dumps a long shot in a lake; rather than drop at the water's edge, by damn, he's gonna hit it over the by-damn lake. Another in the water, then another. And pretty soon he has thrown away the Open. So here is Rory McIlroy on the 10th tee looking across a pond that in its northern reaches has icebergs and in the south has the Bahamas. Roy McAvoy could leave a sleeve of balls in there. Of course, Roy McAvoy was not the kind of guy who'd fold the ends of his Nutri-Grain papers before placing the leftover bar in a trash sack.
On the 10th tee at Augusta, what once was a four-shot lead for McIlroy had dwindled to one. He'd shot 37 on the front. At 10 he hit a wild pull-hook into trees along the left side, the ball ricocheting further left, out of sight of even the all-seeing television cameras. Next thing we saw was Rory McIlroy, looking like a lost little boy, standing alone between two cabins. Not even the Oldest Member had ever seen anyone play from up there. A pitch out, then another pull-hook. "Under pressure," the English star Lee Westwood said, "there's a pull-hook in Rory's bag." And, sadly, McIlroy made a triple-bogey seven. His lead was gone, and on the 13th tee, after a four-putt calamity at the 12th, he wept. We wondered how anyone could face another day's golf after that.
And yet here he was in the Open, the next major, playing the golf of his dreams. Most everything he hit went where he wanted it. Every day he set scoring records. He made 24 3's and two 2's. He made only three bogeys and one double. He three-putted once, at his 71st hole. Sunday's strategy: "I was trying to go out and trying to make no mistakes, and really not give anyone a chance to catch me."
Now he came to the 10th tee, knowing that the 10th and the long, hard 11th were the last two worrisome holes. "It was the biggest point of the round," he said. "There was the possibility of making big numbers." Whatever he felt on the 10th tee at Augusta -- a pull-hook coming? -- a 10-shot lead at Congressional made him "definitely a little more comfortable on the 10th tee today." His playing partner, Y.E. Yang, hit first and put a shot three feet from the cup. In his turn, with that gorgeous swing that moves from languid to explosive in a nanosecond, McIlroy hit one of those high-flying iron shots that make his game extraordinary. It landed maybe 20 feet behind the flagstick -- and from there, everyone knew, McIlroy knew, the thousands gathered around the green knew -- that ball would roll back toward the hole. "I knew when it hit the top of the slope that it was going to come down pretty close," he said.
It came down slowly. With each turn of the ball, the crowd's voice grew louder. Because McIlroy already had done wonders -- holing one from the fairway on Thursday, dropping shots from the sky inside a tight circle at the hole -- wouldn't it be fitting now, on the 10th hole two months after that other 10th hole, that the by-damn ball would just go in? Yes, a hole-in-one -- wouldn't that be pretty? As the ball moved toward the cup, the crowd at the green seeing it best, its roar rising, McIlroy had come down from his perfectly balanced I've-hit-another-pure-shot pose. Now he worked at body English, leaning left as if to move the ball that way, while there came from the crowd a rising thunder, a Nicklaus-'86 thunder. The ball stopped two inches left of perfect.
The birdie there was McIlroy's first on a par-3 all week. He followed with a fairway-and-green par at the 11th. "Big for me," he said. "After I got past the 11th, I sort of knew I would have had to have done something really, really stupid to not win."
Stupid, he's not. He proved that at Augusta when, after the day of his nightmares, he spoke graciously to a handful of reporters because he knew they had a job to do. He made no excuses, he said he would hurt for a while, and then he would be back. This time, at Congressional, at a mass press conference for the new U.S. Open champion, sitting there with the historic trophy at his side, Rory McIlroy reminded the media that he had told them he was over the Masters thing.
"I don't know whether you believed me or not," he said. Then he nodded toward the shiny trophy, smiled, and said, "But here you go."