So much for all those Masters scars he suffered. If Rory McIlroy is carrying any wounds from that very public meltdown three months ago then he certainly hid them well in the US Open yesterday. In fact, for the third time in four majors, this remarkable young Ulsterman holds the first-round lead courtesy of a brilliant 65.
What is it about the opening day which inspires this 22-year-old to perform so majestically? Whatever it is, that 80 in the final round at Augusta was the most distant of memories. From his very first shot – a five iron to 10 feet over the water in front of the raucous galleries by the clubhouse – McIlroy set out to prove the humiliating experience was but a mere set-back. The broken child of Georgia looked a man again.
"Everything worked well," said McIlroy, sounding as relaxed as if he had just completed the Wednesday medal. "I feel very comfortable with my game and very comfortable with this course. When you get a combination like that and hole a few putts it's a great feeling. But I have to go out and back it up tomorrow."
Of course, many will contend that the test will only begin in earnest when the Sunday-afternoon demons descend. Yet this was mightily impressive as he strolled out in that wonderfully languid and youthful way of his to open up a three-shot lead over Charl Schwartzel, the South African who ended up winning the Masters, and YE Yang, the former USPGA champion.
Where does this rank compared to his 63 at St Andrews and the 65 at Augusta? At the very least this six-under magnificence was their equal. Granted, with the rain-softened greens and the kindly pin positions, Congressional will never play more straight-forward in a US Open. But still, this, the only bogey-free round of the entire-day, was indubitable in its quality. One only needs to discover how his playing partners fared to understand that.
Phil Mickelson shot a 74 – "losing" to McIlroy by eight – Dustin Johnson a 75. That is the old hope and the new hope of American golf we are talking about. The contrast between McIlroy and Mickelson was particularly stark. While McIlory moved inexorably from tee to green – hitting 17 out of 18 greens in regulation – Mickelson was all over the property. The left-hander, with his array of flopshots and recovery shots over trees from adjoining holes, is great to watch when in this mood, but is not so great to figure.
As Mickelson played his inimitable style of golf, McIlory was rhythm and control personified. It is difficult to pick out the best moments as there were five hours of them, but the approach to 12 feet on to the 18th (his ninth) and the approach to inches from the rough on the fourth must be somewhere near the top of the memory bank. As he signified, the putts dropped for McIlroy and if they continue to he could take an even bigger lead into Sunday. Perhaps this time he would be ready.
Yesterday was persuasive of so many things. Mickelson, himself, appeared impressed. He played with Colin Montgomerie here in 1997 when the Scot also shot a 65 and called it "the best round I ever saw". By the look on his face as walked off the last green he had just witnessed another special round from a very special young player.
McIlroy's domination of the American pair was a convenient microcosm of the game's world order at the moment. Although, saying that, the threeball of the world No 1 Luke Donald, the No 2, Lee Westwood and the No 3, Martin Kaymer struggled with a 74, 75 and 73 respectively. They were billed as the marquee grouping, but, as it was, the Big Top all but fell in on them.
"Having the top three in the world together should have been more enjoyable for people to watch but none of us played well," said Westwood. "I think we all just about got what we deserved." Both he had and Donald – who birdied the first two before dropping six shots in six disastrous holes – retired to the range, vowing to bounce back today. In truth, their prime objective must be simply to make the cut.
Sergio Garcia should have no such doubts on that score, but with the emotional Spaniard one never can be sure. This 69 was a rare day back in the spotlight for Garcia, who last year took a protracted break after falling out of love with golf. His ranking has fallen sufficiently to ensure he was forced to qualify for this major. Maybe this will stir the old passions. It is hard to believe but Garcia is not yet qualified for next month's Open. We can only hope this round, featuring four birdies, two bogeys and enough great putts to make him almost recognisable, is so much more than a flash in the pan.
Earlier, a one-under 70 was a courageous start for Graeme McDowell, as, in the glare of expectation, the defending champion attempts to reprise his heroics from Pebble Beach 12 months ago. Well, he's already one stroke better than at the stage last year. It was an unsettling morning for McDowell as at one stage his group was delayed when a 29-year-old member of the crowd was treated by paramedics for a heart attack. Last night, the man was reported to be in a stable condition.
McDowell could well figure on the weekend, as could Padraig Harrington. The three-time major champion, whose form has been so woeful he has recently fallen out of the world's top 50, shot a highly respectable 70, but was frustrated by "the shots I left out there". "This is the easiest we're going to get Congressional," said Harrington. "The greens were receptive and the pins were in nice positions where you felt you could go for birdie."
The implication was clear. Congressional is about to get tougher. The USGA will not enjoy their leader riding so high on six-under. For McIlroy the challenge starts again this morning.
Outfit of the day
Having gone to the White House in preparation on Wednesday night, proud American and PGA tour cult hero Bubba Watson was in full patriotic gear yesterday: military-style camouflage trousers and a stars-and-stripes belt buckle. It worked: he hit an even 71.
Relative of the day
Sam Saunders has the luxury of the ability to call on his family gene pool this year. The grandson of Arnold Palmer carries a certain burden of attention, but he could not quite live up to his genes. The 24-year-old only managed to card a three-over round of 74.
In stead of Tiger
In the absence of a Tiger from the US Open this year, his erstwhile caddie, New Zealander Steve Williams, has gone to work with Australian Adam Scott. He seemed to catch the worst of Tiger's recent form, though: Scott bogeyed seven times before finishing three over.
Shot of the day
Graeme McDowell stumbled into the bunker on the 10th hole. But the defending champion played a perfect shot, hitting the pin and nearly securing a brilliant birdie. A good sign and a start of the defensive work he will need in order to retain his title over the weekend.