BETHESDA, Md. -- So we come to Saturday, with Rory McIlroy about to lap the field. My pal Callahan the Contrarian says, "The only drama left is if Rory wins the thing and there on the 18th green reaches to his ear and peels off a mask to show that he is really . . . Tiger!"
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Lesser dramatists imagine a weekend in which they just keep hitting and hoping -- hitting it straight, hoping McIlroy returns to earth. "Yeah, you can't control what Rory does," Matt Kuchar said, nine behind on Saturday morning. "It's some awesome playing. . . . I'll continue with my strategy of hitting a lot of fairways. The more fairways you hit, just makes life a whole lot easier than playing out of this rough."
After Steve Stricker posted a 69 Friday to get back to two-over-par, 13 shots back of McIlroy, he said, "There's a long ways to go yet. I mean, just got to keep hanging in there and keep trying to shoot under par. He's got to come back. The way he's playing now, it doesn't seem like he'll do that, but you've just got to keep fighting and see what happens."
(Related: An early profile of McIlroy's rise.)*__
Padraig Harrington, to name one major-championship winner, can't see McIlroy retreating much -- for two reasons: 1) McIlroy is growing up, and 2) we're not at Augusta this week. "He's got enough experience and I think he's learned enough at this stage," Harrington said. "This golf course suits him. It will only suit him even more on the weekend as they'll toughen it up. It plays to a guy who has a lead." At the Masters, he said, no leader can feel comfortable. "Augusta can always catch up with you. On any of those par-5's you can take par 5 with your rival making eagle. But there's not holes like that out here. . . . There's not big swing holes."
One veteran American, Robert Garrigus, put together twin 70s and is nine shots off the lead. He's all but leading cheers for McIlroy. "It's cool to see after the Masters and what happened to him," Garrigus said, an allusion to McIlroy's meltdown on Sunday when he seemed to have the thing won. "To do what he's doing is phenomenal. It's good for the game. I mean, tearing it up like this. He's a good kid, and we'll see what happens on the weekend."
The Englishman Lee Westwood is not as generous. It was Westwood who saw McIlroy lose the Masters and told the press that under pressure McIlroy has a pull-hook in his bag. Now ranked No. 2 in the world but still looking for his first major championship, Westwood came to Saturday a dozen shots behind McIlroy and saying, "If I'm going to win the tournament, then I'm going to need Rory to play poorly . . . I might play great and shoot 11-under-par and get to 10, but he's still got to shoot -- if he shoots level at the weekend, then he wins."
Westwood also said, "But when you've got a six-shot lead, as I know, because I've had a few six-shot leads, everybody gives you the tournament almost. So in everybody's mind, he's probably already won it. They're probably debating whether he's already won it on TV."
Then, asked if the Open had fallen into two flights, as in 2000 when Tiger Woods ran off and hid at Pebble Beach, Westwood said, "I think that's the attitude I'm going in with over the next couple of days -- to try and get past whoever is in the second spot, and we'll see what Rory does."
After all, Westwood said, "He's had leads before."
-- *Dave Kindred
Follow on Twitter: @DaveKindred *