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Rory Story - McIlroy & Company Demolish Congressional at the U.S. Open
For the third straight day Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy strangled the formerly Big, Bad Congressional Country Club Blue Course, grabbing it by the throat and squeezing until it cried for mercy. In the process, McIlroy is piling up records, accolades and new fans by the truckload, (sorry . . . lorry-load), shattering the 36- and 54-hole aggregate scoring record (131 after two days and 199 after three days), and the score in relation to par (14-under).
McIlroy also became the fastest player to reach double-digits under par, getting to 10-under in just 26 holes. In three days he's posted 15 birdies and just one bogey and a double-bogey. His blistering performance left ESPN radio commentator Curtis Strange to joke, "Welcome to the Phoenix Open."
That's what Congressional has played like. Some blame the weather, but every time we come to Congressional we get the same conditions: hot, wet and soft. Moreover, every time we come to Congressional, we get low scores. The winning aggregate scores in its three prior majors were 276, 278 and 281. By contrast, Winged Foot, Oakmont, and Oakland Hills routinely clock in at 285 on the dot.
Maybe the climate of D.C. in June coupled with the relative shortness of many holes at the course lends itself to low scores more than most other major championship venues. Congressional seems doomed to always be on the easier end of the scale of U.S. Open courses. They have tried countless different routings of this golf course and while, without question, this is the best version of the Blue Course we have seen, it still may not be stern enough of a test for the year's hardest tournament, the Tour players' Final Examination in Golf. Instead, the pros are clubbing it like a baby harp seal.
Here are a few telling stats:
1. From 2000-2010 a cumulative total of just 15 players finished the U.S. Open under par. That's just 15 players in 11 years. This year, as we go to press, 20 players are under par in just three days.
2. At 6-under, Y.E. Yang's score-to-par would have won him every U.S. Open of the last 17 years except two (Woods in 2000 at 12-under, Furyk in 2003 at 8-under).
3. Congressional has surrendered 45 rounds in the 60s thus far this week. It's handing out rounds in the mid-60s like political handbills, and not just to stars like McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. Look at this Murderers Row of players who have blistered Congressional with rounds in the 60: Robert Garrigus, K.T. Kim, Fredrik Jacobson, Bo Van Pelt, Peter Hansen, Webb Simpson, Alexander Norem, Marcel Niem, Bill Haas, Kevin Chappell and Marc Leishman.
Excuse me, but when did Marc Leishman become Padraig Harrington?
"The conditions are soft, so you can hit 10 or 11 fairways and then have plenty of birdie opportunities," explained Simpson, whose 66 vaulted him 40 places up the leaderboard. But then he gave another astute observation that offers a different explanation as to Congressional's passivity.
"Unlike Winged Foot or Oakmont or Bethpage . . . you're going to have a few wedges in, and the greens are s big and undulating, you can get it on the right tier and close t the hole," Simpson explained. "The others - you're seeing more 4- and 5-irons, and I think that's why you're seeing good scores."
He raises a great point. Through three rounds at Congressional the entire field played to a scoring average of 71.9. That's unbelievable when compared to the usual 74-77 range of nearly every other venue in the last two decades, save Olympia Fields.
Even the amateurs are getting in on the fun, and they're usually lion-fodder. Patrick Cantley, for example, has gotten a lot of mileage out of his 67 on Friday. It not only saved him from the cut line, but set him up for a 1-under 70 that put him on the second page of the leaderboard and got him on the NBC telecast. He's just a 19 year-old freshman at UCLA. When not playing golf, he's trying to decide whether to study for the Cultural Geography exam or write the World History 101 paper. Today, he'll be battling his Palmer Cup partner, Russell Henley for the silver medal, the prize given to the low amateur.
"I'm staying in school and graduating. I'm not leaving early," he said with steely conviction as no less a personage than Tim Rosaforte, the smartest man in golf (and smartest-dressed, too), was interviewing him.
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy and his eight-shot lead loom over this U.S. Open like Godzilla over Tokyo. So far this week, he's No. 1 in Greens in Regulation (46 of 54) and sixth in Putting. That's the formula to win the U.S. Open in the Mike Davis setup era: where driving accuracy has dropped in importance in place of re-introducing dramatic recovery shots and strategic options.
If Rory merely shoots a pedestrian 1-over 72, he still breaks the U.S. Open aggregate scoring record of 272. If he shoots a 66 he ties the aggregate scoring record for all major championships (265 - David Toms at Atlanta Athletic Club at the 2001 PGA Championship), and the lowest score in relation to par (Tiger Woods - 19-under during the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews). And if McIlroy shoots 65 he breaks them all, and the major championship record book is rewritten in green ink. You can read it while drinking green beer in his honor. All Ireland, Northern Ireland and Boston will ring with the cheering and everyone of Irish descent will raise a glass in toast.
Thank goodness, too. Take his name off the leaderboard and what are you left with? Corrugated cardboard and paint chips. For openers, he saved us from Y.E. Yang again.
Yang spent Friday night boasting to the media about the time he came back from a 10-shot deficit in one round, but that was on the Asian Tour against a field of featherweights. Still, he was adamant about making a run at Rory from a mere six shots back on Friday night.
I'm checking back with you now. How did that turn out?
Of all the professional golfers on the planet, McIlroy seems the most likely to win more than a fistful of majors, since he can play well on any style course: Augusta, classic American parkland courses or British links-land. He has a versatile game, a silky-smooth swing, and he's got the benefit of hindsight; he clearly saw Tiger Woods's mistakes and he's determined not to make them. This April when he lost the Masters so devastatingly, he was as gracious as Phil Mickelson was when he lost at Winged Foot: no running away from the media, no shrinking from the spotlight, no dodging any questions. He even made you laugh about what happened.
"Well I had five full holes to start to forget about it," he observed light-heartedly, winning the respect and admiration of the fans as well as the media. Good on ya, kid.
Now he looks to have his whole life to reminisce. Poker players tell of a mantra that they "can never remember how they built up their bankroll, but can't stop thinking about how they lost it." That's not true of golfers though. Rory is 18 holes away from not just redemption, but immortality.
Who needed Tiger Woods this week? Nobody, that's who. We came into this tournament with a million questions about who was going to be the new face of the Tour. Well guess what? They were answered with a cannon blast.
As for Congressional, it's got great greens (too bad they were "browns" this week) and some interesting terrain. But with all he stupid trees, heat, humidity, traffic (worst in America), parking problems, security issues, smog and, most importantly, ridiculously low scores, coming here once every 20 years or more is plenty. The record book can only take so much.
News & Notes
If Rory wins, Irish or Northern Irish golfers will have won six of the last 20 majors.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.
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