McIlroy Takes First Step in Pursuit of Woods at Soft Congressional

For Rory McIlroy, the choker label is gone. Instead, he has people saying maybe he, not Tiger Woods, will break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major golf championships.

Two months after blowing a four-shot lead in the final round of the Masters Tournament, McIlroy, a 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, put an end to talk that he couldn’t win big titles with a record-setting win at the U.S. Open,

“You talk about having a chance to break Jack’s records, there’s your man,” Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner, said of McIlroy prior to yesterday’s final round.

While McIlroy is 17 major titles shy of Nicklaus’s record and 13 behind Woods, he said he was happy to finally break through, even if the 35-year-old Woods wasn’t in the field due to knee and ankle injuries.

“It would just be nice for him to be healthy again and be back out on the golf course. He’s Tiger Woods,” McIlroy said at a news conference. “I’m just happy to be sitting here with the trophy that has his name on it.”

McIlroy was aided by conditions at Congressional Country Club, where 100-degree heat earlier this month and rainy conditions during play produced favorable scoring conditions.

“Congrats to Rory,” Woods said in an e-mail through his agent, Mark Steinberg. “What a performance from start to finish. Enjoy the win. Well done.”

Eleven years ago, Woods set the U.S. Open record with a 15- shot win at California’s Pebble Beach Golf Links.

“There might be people capable of winning a major, but there’s not too many people capable of dominating and running away from the field in a major,” said Graeme McDowell, last year’s winner at Pebble Beach from Northern Ireland. “This is indeed his destiny.”

Congressional Comeback

McIlroy’s victory won’t keep the U.S. Golf Association, which has organized the tournament since 1895, from returning to the Bethesda, Maryland, course, officials said.

“Records are made to be broken,” Mike Davis, USGA executive director, said in an interview. “He lapped the field. It’s a great thing.”

McIlroy, who had two professional victories before yesterday, said his goal over the final 18 holes was to prevent anyone from getting a chance of catching him. He said that was a lesson he learned by watching Woods.

“I was trying to go there with the same intensity he has,” McIlroy said in a press conference. “No lead is big enough.”

Jason Day of Australia finished eight shots back. Otherwise, McIlroy was barely challenged and became the first player to lead the tournament from start to finish since Woods in 2002 at New York’s Bethpage Black course.

No. 1

Luke Donald, an Englishman who entered the week No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, finished 46th at 5 over. McDowell was 14th at 2 under and Phil Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up, was 54th at 7 over. The top-finishing American was Kevin Chappell, a 24-year-old rookie playing in his first U.S. Open, who tied for third.

All will be chasing McIlroy for a while, said South Korea’s Y.E. Yang, the 2009 PGA Championship winner who was paired with McIlroy for the final two rounds. Yang finished 10 shots back.

“He hasn’t primed yet,” Yang said. “He’s still growing and it’s just scary to think about it.”

The USGA attributed the low scores mostly to rainy weather on a course with heavy soil. Records were destined to be eclipsed, officials said.

“If he wasn’t in the field, we’d be talking about a pretty tight U.S. Open,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and competitions. “Hat’s off to him.”

Other than McIlroy, the top 10 finishers were separated by four shots.

Congressional hosted the U.S. Open in 1964 and 1997. The winning scores those years were 2 under by Ken Venturi -- the only player under par that year -- and 4 under by Ernie Els.

“The course did me a few favors this week,” McIlroy said in a press conference. “If this golf course was firm and hard, I don’t think anyone could have got to 16 under par.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Buteau in Atlanta at mbuteau@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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