Augusta's lost boy turns into Holywood starlet


"Rory McIlroy is back at the top – but staying there is a different story".

By the look of it, the young Ulsterman did not read the front page of USA Today yesterday morning, the newspaper with the widest circulation in America. And if he did, he tossed it aside and carried on with his breakfast. Waffle. No treacle.

Of course, it will be the same old story until McIlroy, all 22 years of him, strides out on a Sunday to claim his first major. There's a curious mix of sentiment and cynicism when it comes to McIlroy. As much as they cried for him at Augusta, deep down they also smirked. Tough game, majors. It's not for kids.

The Alan Hansen theory of professional sport has some serious weight at golf's most demanding major. Jack Nicklaus was four months older than McIlroy when he won his first US Open; Tiger Woods did not prevail at his national championship until he was 24. Then he spreadeagled a field in a manner not seen before or since. Until now. "Don't wake up, kid," roared the American broadcaster when McIlroy's 113-yard pitch found the cup for an eagle on the eighth.

Don't worry. McIlroy goes into the weekend with his eyes as wide open as the gap to his nearest rival. The time he has shared with Nicklaus in the last few years will have made him acutely aware what it entails. "Jack told me, 'You've really got to want it, you've got to go out there and expect to play well'," said McIlroy. That accounts for the strut. "After Augusta I said I needed to be a little bit more cocky, a little bit more arrogant on the course," added McIlroy. "I've just tried to have a bit of an attitude, you know... Even if you get six ahead, try to get seven ahead, eight ahead, 10 ahead. Just try to keep going."

Brave words, but no matter how determined he is to guard "against being tentative" a measure of caution might be wise. The USGA do not like their leaders in double digits – they're not even fond of them in single digits. The ground is drying, the pins are going into hiding, the Congressional is about to launch a very public inquiry.

There are precedents; of course there are. While the example of Woods in 2000 was last night being breathlessly cited (six clear at halfway, 15 clear at the end, the only player under par), the whisper of Gil Morgan was rustling through the Maryland trees. In 1992 at Pebble Beach, this doctor of optometry became the first player in the history of the US Open to get to 10-under. It was after three holes of his third round, 13 holes later than McIlroy. By the seventh hole he was 12-under, seven clear. By Sunday evening he was five-over and in a tie for 13th. He had dropped 17 shots in the space of 29 holes. Morgan had dared to go where nobody had before. It proved to be his temple of doom.

However, there is rather more of the Indiana Jones about the starlet from Holywood. McIlroy has already banished the demons of Friday; the 80 in the second round of the Open is way back in the scrapbook. Now for the demons of Sunday and the exorcism of that other 80 which dances like a devil in the narrative of what, many overlook, remains a burgeoning career.

So much for the lost boy of Amen Corner. The young candidate at Congressional was forcing them into a recount last night. As some wag put it: "McIlroy could shoot 80 on Sunday and still win by five."

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